US Marshals, the oldest law enforcement agency of the nation

Over the past months, there has been a lot of talk about flying US Marshals and how they can best protect international flights. A lot less known will probably the work of the US Marshals who have had their clichéd part in Hollywood Westerns for decades. Their work, however, probably does not have a lot to do with the work a modern policeman has to do these days. That's why we want to have a look at history and the daily business of an unusual institution.


The name has its origins in Europe and is a compound of the words "Marah" and "Scalc." Marah means horse and Scalc stands for footman or servant.

The original Marshal

So, the original Marshal is nothing more than a stable boy. In later times it was the name for a courageous cavalryman. Starting with the 12th century it applied to officials (German: Hofmarschall, Engl.: lord stewart) and a little later the term was used for a high officer's rank in the military. To sum up we can say that starting with the 13th century, the term Marshall stood for chivalry, law and order.

Founding of the US Marshals

The US Marshals Service was established in 1789 and is the oldest federal police in the US. When George Washington was establishing his first administration and Congress started passing the first laws, the founders soon realized that there was no authority that represented federal interests on a local level. So, since they saw the necessity of a regional institution, they decided to create an organization called the "United States Marshals Service" (USMS).

Their job back then

The Marshals Service was granted extensive authority for the execution of their tasks. Their tasks included the enforcement and control of all legal decisions made by judges, US Congress or the US president. Among them were collection of taxes, organization of the census, security for federal courts and the judges, searching for convicts, escaped slaves and deserters, as well as arresting them and taking them to the appropriate Sheriffs Office, as well as special tasks.
Furthermore they distributed proclamations and collected a great number of statistical data that was of interest to the federal government. In times of war it was their job to control the borders, capture spies and, when it was time, exchange them for their own.

These were their main tasks the Marshals had to fulfill with the help of their deputies. But in the course of time a lot changed, even the tasks of the Marshals Service. The basic areas of responsibility did not change, but only the range of their duties. Originally, there were 13 legal districts the US Marshals Service was responsible for, but today there are 94, all across the country. And some few federal and district judges became tens of thousands, in addition the juries, the witnesses, the accused also need supervision.
This rapid increase of court locations with the respective personnel made it necessary to drastically reduce their tasks.

In short the US Marshals Service today is a court police for the US federal courts. And successfully so: 55% of fugitives throughout the country are being captured by US Marshals.

The duties of the US Marshals Service (USMS) include to capture offenders who have violated federal law. The Marshals Service has the same authority the FBI has. The Marshals and their Deputies can operate in all states and counties and arrests suspects. In addition to the police duties they also take care of prisoner transport of federal prisoners.

In detail:

The main duties of the US Marshals today is searching for serious offenders. They work closely together with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

15 Most Wanted

The "customers" of the US Marshals Service are all compiled on one list, the so-called "15 Most Wanted." This is a list of those 15 criminals who are most wanted on a federal level. This list includes a total of 143 persons, 128 of which have already been captured by the US Marshals Service.

In order to further increase efficiency, so-called Task Forces have been established. They always operate on a local-regional level and are spread throughout the country. It is quite clear that these task forces, 150 in total, are working hand in hand. Statistically speaking each of these task forces captures 1,300 criminals every year. These US Marshals cannot only operate on a national level, they can even work internationally as far as this is in the best interest of the country. They have liaison offices at Interpol in Lyon and in Washington D.C.

Another duty of the US Marshals Service is to protect federal judges, court employees, juries and witnesses. This includes the court buildings as well, which will be guarded either temporarily or permanently, depending on the threat. The Marshals also have to protect the accused. According to statistics these are ca. 27,000 prisoners a year. The Marshals and Deputies are responsible for the prisoners as soon as they are on their way to the court. The Marshals Service is responsible for getting the accused to their court dates on time. Their duty to protect the accused only ends when he is acquitted or sentenced.

Prisoner transport

In 1984 the "Justice Prisoner" and "Alien Transportation System" JPATS was established to get prisoners from point A to point B and to transport illegal immigrants back to their home countries. For this purpose, three Boeing 727, one DC-9 and several smaller Jets as well as turboprops have been acquired. This became necessary as not to endanger civilian passengers, but also for economical reasons. The service, it is said, is not very friendly or comfortable for JPATS passengers, also, the prisoners have to be wearing handcuffs and shackles all through the flight - the latter are fixed to the floor. Roughly 200,000 passengers are welcomed on board the "Marshals Airline" every year at present.

Witness Security Program

The Marshals are also responsible for the Witness Security Program (WITSEC). This applies whenever serious offenders from the areas of organized crime, drug lords, or terrorists are offering to be chief witnesses, ready to testify.

The Marshals Service is not only responsible for the security of the witness, but also for the new identity with everything that goes along with it. With the establishing of this witness security program the sentencing of the people pulling the strings, of the bosses and godfathers has increased by 89 percent. Since 1984 the secured assets, real estate, illegal earnings, jewelry, art, cars, yachts, planes etc. - in short, anything that has been obtained with money gained from crime - may be confiscated and sold by the Marshals Service. Most of the money, by the way, comes from the drug lords. The money then goes right back to the fighting of crime. Since 1984 ca $8.9 billion have been earned this way.


Another subdivision of the Marshals Service is the Special Operations Group (SOG). The SOG may be compared to the German GSG 9. It consists of specially educated and trained men who have volunteered for this and serves as a tactical unit. The physical and mental requirements these men have to meet are very high. The SOG has to be ready 24 hours a day and that everywhere in the US.