Winston Smith, Jr. was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Thursday by officers involved with a U.S. Marshals Service task force as they attempted to arrest the 32-year-old Black man.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is leading the investigation in this case, said law enforcement members serving on the U.S. Marshals’ joint North Star Fugitive Task Force were alerted to the location of a man who had a warrant out for a felony firearms violation. Members of the task force “made contact with him” on the top level of the parking ramp in Uptown “in an attempt to take him into custody.” According to the BCA, “at one point a Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy and a Ramsey County sheriff’s deputy serving on the task force discharged their weapons, striking the man.” Smith died at the scene.
Speakers at a press conference Friday asked for anyone who has cellphone footage footage at the shooting to come forward with it, but no video footage of the incident has been released yet.
In other recent police killings, footage from body cameras worn by officers has played a critical role in showing what happened. But that won’t be coming in this case: The U.S. Marshals do not wear body cameras, and they prohibit local cops on their task force from wearing them.
Why the Marshals were involved
The U.S. Marshals Service is the enforcement arm of the federal courts and is under the direction of the Attorney General. Marshals are responsible for seeking fugitives, serving arrest warrants and transporting federal prisoners.
Marshals have been credited with capturing some of America’s most wanted fugitives, including people accused of killing police officers and drug cartel leaders. But the agency has also been involved with lower-level suspects, including people accused of crimes that did not involve serious physical injuries, like drug possession.
According to the information currently available, the U.S. Marshals were involved in Smith’s case because he had been convicted of a violent felony in the past and had a warrant out for illegal possession of a firearm. Smith was convicted in 2017 in the assault and robbery of his ex-girlfriend and sentenced to two years in prison, but the sentence was stayed for three years, provided he didn’t break the law. In most cases, federal law bans those who have been convicted of felonies from possessing firearms. Smith was also charged in Ramsey County with illegally possessing a firearm in 2019. Smith was also charged with fleeing police in Hennepin County last year.
In Minnesota, the U.S. Marshals team responsible for Smith’s death is called the Northstar Fugitive Task Force. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Task Force includes members of local, state and federal law enforcement who team up to “arrest the state’s most violent fugitives.”
According to a preliminary investigation, the BCA said that “at one point a Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy and a Ramsey County sheriff’s deputy serving on the task force discharged their weapons, striking the man.” No official statements have confirmed whether U.S. Marshalls Service officers fired shots during the attempted arrest.
The Feds follow different rules
Task force officers (TFOs) are state and local law enforcement officers who receive “special deputations” from the U.S. Marshals Service. While on the task force TFOs can exercise U.S. Marshals’ authorities such as being able to cross jurisdictional lines and, as in this case, refrain from wearing body cameras.
In October 2020, the Department of Justice issued a policy that would permit TFOs to wear body cameras on federal task forces. In February of this year, the Marshals Service began to “phase-in” the policy, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The task force involved with Smith’s death had not yet implemented the new policy.
In addition to more lax rules on body cameras, the U.S. Marshals and task force members are even more difficult to hold accountable than average police officers if something goes wrong. According to an investigation by USA Today and The Marshall Project, no marshal has been prosecuted after a shooting as of 2020. Local district attorneys don’t have the legal power to prosecute federal agents, and the Justice Department can shield them from litigation.
Early stages of the BCA investigation found evidence Smith fired his weapon from inside the vehicle; the BCA reported crime scene personnel “recovered a handgun as well as spent cartridge cases from inside the driver’s compartment.” It’s still unclear whether the gun was fired during this encounter or not. The investigation is still underway.
At a news conference Friday, Minnesota Justice Coalition President Johnathon McClellan questioned why law enforcement would not want to release footage if they believe their actions were justified, saying law enforcement may have something to hide. The Minnesota Justice Coalition provides non-litigatory services for family members affected by issues of police misconduct.
“It is important that we have transparency and accountability,” McClellan said. “We also question these task forces that produce cowboy cops that make up their own rules and circumvent best practices, lack proper oversight and display patterns and practices that terrorize and do not protect and serve.”
Opting out of the task force
Not all Minnesota law enforcement agencies participate in these federally coordinated task forces. St. Paul police have not been taking part in federal task forces since 2019 (along with many other cities). After St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell notified federal officials that the department’s officers were required to wear body cameras, the acting U.S. Marshal for Minnesota said local officers needed to follow marshal procedures. Axtell then pulled St. Paul officers from the task force.
Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office implemented body cameras for over 400 employees in September 2019, but did follow the marshal procedures requiring them to turn the cameras off during task force activities.
After the killing of Smith, that’s changing: The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office signed an addendum Friday that modifies a 2014 agreement with the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force, requiring any Ramsey County deputy who is federally deputized and assigned to the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force to wear and use a body camera. But Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher released a statement Monday evening announcing he has pulled his deputies from the task force after learning the federal agency would continue to prohibit body camera use.
“Despite regular requests from local law enforcement, the normal refrain from the Marshals office has been and continues to be ‘We’re working on the problem.’ Neither the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office nor the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office was offered the opportunity to use body cameras until last Friday in the wake of Winston Smith’s death,” Fletcher said in a statement released Monday evening.
Meanwhile, there are some efforts at the federal level to change marshal policy. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was passed in the House in March, includes a bill which would require federal officers to use body cameras and dash cameras in marked federal police vehicles. The bill is currently under negotiation in the Senate.
Minneapolis saw protests Friday and over the weekend after Smith was killed. The city has been on edge since last year’s death of George Floyd and since the police shooting of Black motorist Daunte Wright in nearby Brooklyn Center in April, both of which were followed by mass protests.
At the Friday press conference, Smith’s family criticized law enforcers’ depiction of Smith and said that while he was trying to “turn over a new leaf,” police were “using his past to tarnish his character.”
“My brother was kind,” said Tieshia Floyd, Smith’s sister. “No, he wasn’t perfect. None of us are… I will protect my brother’s name until justice has been served.”