The federal agency whose task force fatally shot Winston "Boogie" Smith Jr. while trying to arrest him in a Minneapolis parking ramp usually keeps a low profile.
But amid a national push for police accountability, critics now are questioning the often-secret actions of the U.S. Marshals Service, including why and how it oversaw the operation that resulted in Smith's death.
"The reason you don't know much about the Marshals Service is that's the way they operate," said Thomas Heffelfinger, former U.S. attorney for Minnesota. "The secrecy under which they operate is to some degree consistent with their mission, which is done much more effectively if done quietly."
The U.S. Marshals Service is the oldest law enforcement agency in the country and operates under the Justice Department as an enforcement arm of the federal court system. Its duties include providing security for courthouses and judges and tracking down fugitives.
In Minnesota, the marshals lead the North Star Fugitive Task Force, which pulls in local agencies to arrest fugitives and sometimes crosses state lines. It partnered with marshals in Memphis in January to arrest Armond Desmond Stewart, a man wanted for murder in Robbinsdale.
"An interstate murder fugitive presents unique challenges for law enforcement," U.S. marshal Tyreece Miller of Tennessee said in a statement. "The Marshals Service prides itself in meeting those challenges head-on as we strive for peaceful and successful outcomes."
But on the afternoon of June 3, the task force confronted a Minneapolis resident in Uptown on a far lesser charge. Smith, who was Black, had just left Stella's Fish Cafe with a date and was sitting with her in his car atop a parking garage across the street. Task force members surrounded Smith in a half-dozen unmarked cars to arrest him on a Ramsey County warrant for failure to appear for sentencing after he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a gun.
Authorities said Smith produced a gun when confronted, and two local sheriff's deputies working on the task force shot and killed him. The state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is investigating the case, said it found a gun and spent cartridge casings in the car. But his passenger said she didn't see Smith with a firearm.
And the Marshals Service forbade participants from wearing body cameras that would have been required if they had been operating under local rules.
The BCA is part of the task force, but a spokesman said the bureau doesn't participate in general warrant operations and no agents are assigned to the team full time or part time.
Federal authorities have yet to disclose more details about the task force, which appears to be in limbo after sheriff's offices in Ramsey, Hennepin and Anoka counties have paused on participation or withdrawn over disagreement about the agency's prohibition on body cameras. The Marshals Service is moving to allow the cameras after Smith's shooting.
"The task force still exists, but until this body-worn camera issue is straightened out, I don't think it's going to look the way it looked pre-June 3," said Anders Folk, acting U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
Such task forces have proliferated nationally, allowing marshals to bring surveillance equipment, training and funds to local agencies. Local officers bring the feds expertise in their communities and strength in numbers.
"Task forces are a huge problem across the country and ... are much less accountable than any local police department," said Jonathan Smith, who formerly worked at the Justice Department investigating civil rights violations by local police departments.
Unlike with city police forces, citizens can't make complaints to be reviewed by a civilian board, for example. There's more restrictive access to public information, and the federal government is harder to sue.
Last September, a U.S. marshals task force shot to death self-described anti-fascist activist Michael Reinoehl, a white man suspected of fatally shooting a far-right protester days earlier in Portland, Ore., amid civil unrest over the killing of George Floyd. President Donald Trump praised the move, saying, "We sent in the U.S. marshals, took 15 minutes, it was over."
Several news investigations raised questions about whether marshals really tried to arrest Reinoehl. The New York Times found that all but one of 22 witnesses said they did not hear the officers in unmarked cars announce themselves or issue commands before firing.
Months later, a sheriff's deputy in Columbus, Ohio, shot a Black man named Casey Goodson Jr. in the back as he walked into his grandmother's home. Peter Tobin, U.S. marshal for the Southern District of Ohio, said the deputy had just ended an unsuccessful hunt for a fugitive wanted by a task force when he saw Goodson waving a gun, and that Goodson refused to drop it when confronted.
Goodson was not the target of an investigation, had no criminal record and was licensed to carry a firearm. His grandmother said she found him bleeding in the doorway while holding several sandwiches — not a weapon.
Tobin publicly predicted the shooting would be ruled justified but backtracked after Mayor Andrew Ginther condemned the marshal's comments as inappropriate. The Justice Department is reviewing the case.
The Marshall Project, a news outlet that covers criminal justice, published an investigation in February finding that marshals and local officers working with them had been killing, on average, 22 people a year and were not required to try to de-escalate encounters before using deadly force. The report found many shootings into cars when unmarked cars "boxed in" suspects.
Several law enforcement experts told the Star Tribune that doing so is safer than trying to arrest a fugitive at a house, or in Smith's case, arresting him in a crowded Uptown Minneapolis restaurant where more bystanders could be hurt.
"I can guarantee you, they do not go into operations planning to shoot their guns," said Heffelfinger.
Critics say the strategy, though, only escalates a situation. It's raised questions for Smith, now executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who said he thinks the task force's actions June 3 were risky for everybody.
"I don't know why the fact that he failed to appear in court meant that he was such a threat to the community that it took this level of force to bring him into custody," he said.
But he and others acknowledge there's still a lot the public doesn't know about why federal agents were pursuing Smith.
A suspect's past behavior toward police can affect how marshals approach, according to officials familiar with the agency. When Bloomington officers tried to arrest Winston Smith a year ago on other warrants, court documents said, he led them on a chase that police ended after he entered Interstate 494 going the wrong direction.
And Smith, voicing frustrations over police brutality, made some social media postings advocating violence against police. In February, he spoke on Instagram about how he had been stressed over going to jail for the gun charge and would rather die for his freedom but had since reversed his position. After seeing the Minneapolis police killing of Dolal Idd — shown on body camera footage firing at officers from a car — weeks before, Smith said he asked himself, "What good does that do?"
Given the questions around the case, a range of legal observers say the U.S. marshal for Minnesota, Ramona Dohman — whom protesters in Uptown are urging to resign — should address the public. The Marshals Service has not granted a request for an interview with her on the Winston Smith case.
Jonathan Smith recalled that when he was at the Justice Department, the agency talked to police chiefs across the country about why they needed to be open with the public after police killings. So it's disappointing, he said, that federal agencies don't do the same.
With silence, "community mistrust, which is completely justified, just gets amplified."
Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.