ATLANTA—The police call was routine: a “suspicious person” was lurking at an apartment complex north of downtown. When officers responded that morning in July 2016, a “Black male with an white t-shirt” pulled a gun on them and fled, they reported. The cops shot at him, missed and hit a purple Nissan nearby.
A few days later, abandoned clothes and papers in a vacant apartment pointed to a likely suspect: Jamarion Robinson, a 26-year-old former college football star with a recent history of psychotic episodes but no felony record. The Atlanta Police Department asked a special fugitive task force—staffed mostly by local cops but led by the U.S. Marshals—to pick him up.
The task force treated him as a major threat. Armed with submachine guns and flash-bang grenades, task force members broke down the door to a friend’s duplex he was visiting. They shot Robinson 59 times, killing him.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Atlanta cleared the task force of wrongdoing. But the local district attorney had questions: Why didn’t they take his schizophrenia into consideration when planning his arrest? Why didn’t they try to get him to surrender? Did Robinson shoot at the officers? Was his killing justified?
Three years later, the D.A. says, the federal government is blocking his investigation. The Justice Department maintains it has jurisdiction over the incident and doesn’t have to give him most of the information he seeks. The matter is now before a federal judge.
Clashes are erupting between local and federal officials over the hundreds of joint task forces that operate around the country, specializing in missions such as finding fugitives, fighting drug dealers or tracking potential terrorists.
Washington provides money, expertise and weaponry. Local law enforcement agencies provide much of the manpower. Their officers are deputized as federal agents, which among other things means that the Justice Department can shield them from litigation and local oversight.
At least five cities, including Atlanta, have pulled out of task forces since 2017, and Houston, the nation’s fourth largest, has threatened to follow.
The problem, police officials say, is that local cops assigned to joint task forces are not bound by department rules, such as wearing body cameras, which the feds have prohibited. The FBI and U.S. Marshals allow the use of deadly force if a person poses an “imminent danger,” using a definition that is less strict than many police departments’. California recently adopted a law stating that deadly force may be used only when “necessary.” Task-force members are also immune to civilian lawsuits in a way that regular officers are not.
“Because of the way that this system has been created, is there a group of law enforcement officials who can essentially do whatever they want?” asked Paul L. Howard, the district attorney in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta.
“They become virtual James Bonds in our society,” he said in an interview.
As a practical matter, federal officials say that task forces need one set of rules for all members to follow—and that the Constitution gives the feds the right to set those rules.
“If you want your cops to observe only your standards, you can’t assign them to the task force,” said Paul Fishman, who spent nine year as the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, serving under both President Obama and President Trump.
The Justice Department “continues to have discussions with task force partners and representatives from local law enforcement organizations about best practices, including the use of body cameras and other issues, to ensure that law enforcement activity and task force operations are conducted lawfully and with the utmost professionalism,” a department spokeswoman, Nicole Navas Oxman, said in an email.
Federal officials announced Monday that they are starting a pilot program that will allow a handful of cities to have their officers wear body cameras while working on a task force. But the overall ban on task-force members wearing body cams remains, as do issues of local oversight and control.
Erika Shields, Atlanta’s police chief, said her department declined to participate in the pilot program because it’s unclear whether she would have the authority to release body-cam footage to the public.
“It’s critical to our transparency efforts,” she said Wednesday. “That’s not the same standard for the federal government.”
Many police leaders remain committed to the task forces, pointing to benefits including federal money for overtime, access to high-tech weapons and the authority to chase suspects across state lines.
“We can follow the bad guys wherever they are,” said Tommi Lyter, chief of police in Pensacola, Fla. This summer, Lyter allowed the U.S. Marshals to deputize a third of his 161-officer force to work on a 90-day mission to go after violent suspects.
But that’s not enough to sway some big-city police officials who are preaching a gospel of transparency, accountability and reform. Major City Chiefs, an organization including 69 of the nation’s largest cities and counties, is among those that have pushed the feds to allow task force officers to record their interactions with the public.
“Asking for body worn camera footage when we are executing an arrest and search warrant is a pretty light lift if you ask us,” said Art Acevedo, the president of the organization and head of Houston’s police department.
The idea of using federal money to subsidize local police forces grew out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on crime” in the 1960s. Congress authorized grants to police departments; New York City’s was the first local agency to benefit when it teamed up with federal narcotics officials to hunt and arrest drug dealers.
Today about a thousand task forces nationwide operate under the direction of the U.S. Marshals, the FBI or the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, according to Justice Department figures. The Department of Homeland Security oversees at least 50 more task forces that mix immigration and border patrol agents with local police.
In February 2017, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force lost its partnership with a big city police department—San Francisco—in a clash over local rules.
The city had signed a 2007 agreement that said officers who join the task force become federally deputized and the Justice Department can shield them from litigation in police abuse cases. When the agreement became public, local civil rights lawyers were irate.
“The law is the law,” John Crew, a lawyer who worked for the ACLU in San Francisco, said in an interview. “You have to make sure you are following state and local policies.”
San Francisco’s mayor then signed legislation requiring that police abide by city and state rules while working with the task force. But the task force continued to violate local rules, Crew said, mainly by profiling Muslim residents and authorizing investigations without what the city considers sufficient evidence.
In 2017, the city’s new police chief, William Scott, declined to renew the police department’s participation in the task force. "We have to slow down for a minute and make sure that the public sees us as an organization that they can trust,” Scott told reporters at the time. A police spokesman said the department continues to seek community input on the issue.
Around the same time, officials in Austin, Texas, were embroiled in a legal battle with a different FBI task force. A police detective, Charles Kleinert, assigned to the FBI’s Central Texas Violent Crimes Task Force, shot and killed an unarmed man in the course of investigating a bank robbery.
A local grand jury indicted Kleinert for manslaughter. But his lawyers successfully argued that he was immune from prosecution by citing an 1890 U.S. Supreme Court case that had blocked a sheriff in California from detaining a U.S. deputy Marshal who shot a man who was attacking a judge.
Even so, Austin continues to participate in federal task forces.
The Albuquerque Police Department, however, pulled out of a regional Marshals task force in early 2018 after a chaotic shooting exposed policy conflicts between local cops and the feds.
The fugitive task force was trying to arrest Mario Montoya, a 31-year-old who had escaped from a halfway house. A firefight erupted. Unsure whether Montoya still threatened them, task force members called Albuquerque’s SWAT team for rescue. Montoya was found dead in a closet, shot by a police detective on the task force.
Police officials complained that the task force’s tactics and its response to a use-of-force investigation clashed with the department’s policies, according to internal emails obtained by The Marshall Project through a public-records request. The dispute highlighted a federal rule that forbids task force officers from speaking to local police immediately after a shooting. Gilbert Gallegos, the department’s spokesman, declined to comment.
So far in 2019, at least three police departments have left federal task forces.
The city council in Portland, Oregon, voted in February to pull local cops from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force over concerns about racial and ethnic profiling. “We as a community have to be vigilant to make sure that people aren’t being put into harm's way just based on where they were born or what language they speak,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, a council member who campaigned on the issue.
St. Paul, Minn., withdrew from a Marshal’s task force at around the same time over the feds’ refusal to allow members to wear body cameras, as local department rules require.
The no-recordings policy pushed Atlanta to withdraw from three task forces, sparked by the shooting of Jimmy Atchison. In December, a woman told police Atchison, a 21-year-old acquaintance, robbed her at gunpoint taking her iPhone, purse and credit cards. Atlanta Police Officer Sung Kim, who was part of an FBI-led task force, shot and killed Atchison, who was hiding in a neighbor’s closet and unarmed.
The city’s new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, asked to see the officer’s body camera footage, and learned Kim—as a deputized federal agent—had no recordings.
The police chief, Shields, pushed the Justice Department to allow her cops on the task forces to start using the devices, and was told no.
“The negative implications of our employees not wearing these cameras, far outweigh any positives we gleaned from being involved in the task force,” Shields said.
Atchison’s parents have helped organize protests and say they plan to sue the city and federal agencies. The U.S. Attorney in Atlanta, Byung J. Pak, requested the Georgia Bureau of Investigation work on the case. GBI investigates local police involved shootings across the state. The agency said it does not comment on investigations. The district attorney has yet to say whether he will prosecute Kim.
But Atlanta is still dealing with the questions raised by the death of Jamarion Robinson: Who has oversight over cops on federal task forces and what recourse do relatives have if a family member is killed?
In 2016, Robinson’s mother, Monteria, awoke to the smell of gasoline as Jamarion, engrossed in another psychotic episode, poured the liquid on her hallway floor. She called the Gwinnett County Police Department for help. Authorities issued an arrest warrant for attempted arson.
Two weeks later came the incident at the apartment complex that put Robinson in the cross hairs of the U.S. Marshals’ Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force. Atlanta police detective Steve O’Hare called Monteria Robinson asking about the attempted arson and her son’s whereabouts. O’Hare didn’t mention that he was part of the task force, nor that Jamarion was wanted for allegedly threatening police with a gun, she said in an interview. She told O’Hare her son suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was not taking his medicine. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, which is defending O’Hare in the case, declined to comment.
That information from Robinsons’ mother was passed on to the task force, which had traced him to a friend’s home, a Marshals investigative report shows. He had never been convicted of anything more serious than driving-related misdemeanors. But in debriefings with state investigators, officers described Robinson, a former athlete at Clark Atlanta University, as “increasingly unstable, violent, and unpredictable.”
When Robinson did not answer the door, the task force rammed it open. An officer in the lead called out that Robinson had a gun; task-force members began firing their automatic weapons, cell phone video from a witness shows. They sprayed almost a hundred bullets, according to the D.A.
The fusillade mutilated Robinson’s hands and torso, crime scene photos show. He bled to death on the townhouse floor.
Task force members told investigators that Robinson fired at them two or three times. The state bureau of investigation’s report says there was a stolen pistol, some shell casings and two live cartridges found near where he died. But it’s not clear that the gun was operable or fired, according to the district attorney’s office.
Federal authorities have made it difficult for local officials to investigate federally-deputized cops. The Justice Department says a task force officer, who “receives a subpoena or other demand,” can only cooperate with the approval from the region’s top federal prosecutor. These requests have to be narrowly focused, and the agency can quash inquiries it deems too broad.
Pak, the U.S. Attorney in Atlanta, said his office had to follow protocol and wasn’t trying to stonewall the district attorney’s investigation into the Robinson shooting. “Paul Howard never called me once about the information he wanted,” Pak said in an interview, referring to the D.A. “He filed a lawsuit and had a press conference.”
Howard wants Congress to force the Justice Department to roll back restrictions on cooperating with local authorities. “If this was a local shooting, those protections wouldn’t be available,” Howard said. “How is it that simply because somebody gets deputized federally then all of those protections are out of the window?”
Federal court rulings have also shielded task forces from scrutiny. Robinson’s mother, an insurance adjuster, filed a lawsuit against the task force officers using a civil rights law that says local cops can be sued for using “excessive force.” But a federal court judge ruled against her, writing: “Other jurisdictions have held, and this Court agrees, that officers who are acting as part of a federal task force act under the color of federal law, not state law.”
She is now pursuing a claim under a narrowly focused, U.S. Supreme Court ruling that authorizes civil rights lawsuits against federal agents who’ve conducted unlawful searches or seizures.
“I feel that my son is not resting until I get justice for him,” she said. “They shot him everywhere. They shot up his entire body.”
An earlier version of this story misidentified the Drug Enforcement Administration.