National data about the use of force by law enforcement officers, particularly shootings, is limited and nearly impossible to compare. But few law enforcement shootings are shrouded in more secrecy than those by officers who work for or with the Department of Justice’s four main law enforcement agencies — the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives.
Since the 1990s, the DOJ has investigated local police departments for civil rights violations and forced them to reform through court-ordered consent decrees. In recent years, those mandated reforms have often included requiring the release of detailed data on police shootings and other uses of force.
But the DOJ’s own law enforcement agencies are legally exempt from similar oversight and the use-of-force data that the agencies publish is so limited that it is difficult to determine who was shot, why and when the shooting took place, and who pulled the trigger.
The Untouchables: NBC News investigates how federal law enforcement officials are able to harm people with little to no accountability.
On any given day, more than 24,000 federal officers overseen by the DOJ are at work across the U.S., conducting surveillance, serving search warrants and pursuing people wanted for violent and nonviolent crimes. Their ranks swell to at least 40,000 once state and local officers who work on their task forces are added. Those task force officers are bound by federal rules, and receive legal protections from prosecution and civil lawsuits similar to those that federal officers have.
In an effort to understand how often federal officers and task force officers use deadly force, NBC News built a five-year database of shootings involving the ATF, DEA, FBI and Marshals Service by reviewing thousands of public documents, news reports, press releases and lawsuits. Documents obtained by records request have been uploaded into a public archive.
From 2018 to 2022, 223 people were shot by officers working for or with these four agencies, in 216 different incidents, according to the NBC News’ analysis. One-hundred-and-fifty-one were killed, an average of 30 per year.
The Bureau of Prisons, which is also part of the Department of Justice, was excluded from the analysis.
The majority of people shot and killed were shot during U.S. Marshals operations. The Marshals are the primary federal agency that pursues and apprehends fugitives. They also assist local law enforcement in arresting some of their most violent suspects, which the Marshals say explains why they have a high number of shootings.
Many of the incidents involved large law enforcement teams, which were often a combination of federal agents, local police who were deputized members of a federal task force and other local officers without federal status.
Federal task force officers fired in roughly a third of the incidents NBC News reviewed. They were the only officers to fire in 36 of them. In 8% of the shootings, local police who were not deputized members of task forces were the only officers who fired. Federal officers fired in 47% of them. NBC News was unable to obtain a breakdown of the type of officers who fired in 15% of the shootings.
The majority of people shot were suspects wanted for crimes ranging in severity from violating probation to drug trafficking and murder. Twenty-two were not the intended target of the operation — some of those shot were not the target of the operation but were wanted for other crimes, while others were bystanders.
Shootings were typically investigated by local law enforcement or prosecutors. NBC News confirmed the findings of 144 investigations into the 216 incidents. Only two found that the officers’ use of force was not justified. Even in the rare cases when prosecutors charge a federal or task force officer, they are extremely difficult to prosecute.
The Untouchables: read more of the NBC News federal law enforcement accountability series
- How the Supreme Court has effectively dismantled Bivens claims, lawsuits against federal officials accused of violating constitutional rights.
- How federal law enforcement agencies under the Justice Department shroud their shootings in secrecy.
- How local prosecutors face steep legal barriers in charging and convicting federal officers of murder.
- How families who lose loved ones in shootings involving federal officers have little recourse in the nation’s courts.
- How a series of Supreme Court rulings allow federal officials from bureaucrats to corrections officers to violate people’s constitutional rights with impunity.
In some cases, officials confirmed by email or phone that their investigation found a shooting justified. For most shooting investigations, NBC News obtained the documents describing their findings from public records and requests to local police, prosecutors and the FBI, which often reviews the shootings its agents are involved in instead of local officials.
Some were single pages, others were more extensive. The documents — mostly law enforcement investigation reports, prosecutors’ justification letters and grand jury decisions — were uploaded and indexed on Documentcloud, where they are available for public review.
Explore the justification reports.
The shootings occurred across the country, in rural towns and big cities, in shopping centers, outside popular restaurants and inside neighborhood stores. Most happened during the execution of search and arrest warrants.
These operations can be dangerous for everyone involved, including law enforcement officials, experts said. Across the 216 incidents, 49 officers were also shot, six of them fatally. Incidents were excluded from the total if no officers shot a person, such as accidental discharges with no injuries or the few cases in which officers did not return fire after a suspect fired.
NBC News built a database of shooting incidents from 2018 to 2022 that involved the Department of Justice’s four main law enforcement agencies — the ATF, the DEA, the FBI, and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The data, collected by reporters from court records, news reports and agency documents, counted incidents in which someone was shot by at least one on-duty federal officer, a local officer who was a deputized member of a federal task force, or a local officer participating in an operation involving at least one of the agencies.
Once a shooting was identified, reporters worked to verify the details using police reports, court records, shooting reviews, and interviews with victims’ family members.
Agency records were obtained using freedom of information requests to all four agencies, though the U.S. Marshals never provided any records. ATF and DEA provided data, while the FBI only sent individual shooting reviews. The records shared by all three were often heavily redacted, missing details such as where incidents occurred and who was shot.
In a small percentage of the incidents included, reporters were unable to gather information beyond news stories covering the day of the shooting, despite multiple inquiries to federal officials, local police and prosecutors.
Incidents were excluded from the total if no officers fired a bullet that struck someone, such as accidental discharges with no injuries or the few cases in which officers did not return fire after a suspect fired. Incidents in which off-duty officers fired their weapons were also excluded, as were incidents abroad and ones from the agencies’ data that could not be found in news stories or official documents. Together, those were 9.5% of all incidents NBC News found.
The agencies’ records included some dates and locations of shootings where no news reports of shootings on or around that date could be found. A few of those incidents were labeled as shootings of animals or times an officer discharged a gun without hitting anyone, but others had no explanation or confirmable details. Incidents from their records that could not be found in news clips, press releases and local public records were excluded from the total.
While NBC News’ database is likely the most comprehensive public count of shootings by these agencies to date, the tally is almost certainly an undercount. Discrepancies between information from the agencies and incidents that made headlines suggest the total number of such shootings is not known.
A note on other agencies:
There are more than 100 federal agencies that have law enforcement officers. They range from having one or two officers, like some Inspector Generals’ offices, to larger forces such as the Postal Inspectors and the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division. NBC News limited its examination to the four major agencies within the Department of Justice that conduct public searches and arrests, which are some of the largest federal agencies with the biggest presence in American communities. This excluded the Bureau of Prisons, the department’s other large law enforcement agency. It also excluded the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency, Customs and Border Protection, which is under the Department of Homeland Security.