Federal watchdog to examine DOJ law enforcement task forces after NBC News report

Congress’ investigative arm is launching a probe of the policies and practices of Justice Department law enforcement task forces in response to a request from Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., a spokesperson for the Government Accountability Office told NBC News.

Ossoff, chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on human rights and law, sent a letter asking the GAO on March 14 to open a review of how the Justice Department oversees its task forces, which often include local police officers. The request comes after NBC News published a series on the lack of accountability for federal law enforcement agencies and the local officers granted federal powers who serve on task forces.

Ossoff asked the GAO to focus on the Justice Department’s main law enforcement agencies — the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the U.S. Marshals Service — “to promote clarity regarding federal policies and practices surrounding these task forces” and answer how the Justice Department provides oversight of its task forces, particularly local officers deputized with federal powers who work on the teams.

GAO spokesperson Chuck Young confirmed Tuesday that the agency accepted Ossoff’s request and will begin its “in-depth examination” into federal task forces within the next few months.

In December, NBC News published a series of stories examining how federal law enforcement officers harm people with little to no accountability and the contrasts between the standards local officers face when they work for their departments compared with those they are held to serving on federal task forces. One of the stories examined the steep challenges for local prosecutors trying to convict an officer from Georgia, Ossoff’s state, in the 2019 killing of Jimmy Atchison, who was fatally shot by an Atlanta police officer serving on an FBI task force.

On Friday, Ossoff met with Jimmy Hill, Atchison’s father, and Gerald Griggs, president of Georgia’s NAACP. “It’s a first step in the right direction,” Hill told NBC News. “This needs to be brought to the forefront.”

Atlanta Police Officer Sung Kim shot and killed Atchison, 21, who was unarmed and hiding in a neighbor’s closet, in January 2019. Atchison was wanted on a local warrant, accused of stealing an acquaintance’s purse at gunpoint. The FBI task force adopted the case. At the time, local officers on task forces were not allowed to wear body cameras. A year after the shooting, the Justice Department allowed local officers on federal task forces to start wearing the devices.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis charged Kim with murder in 2022. Because he was serving on a federal task force at the time, Kim successfully petitioned a federal judge to move his case to federal court, where Willis faces much longer odds of securing a conviction.

Donald Samuel, Kim’s attorney, did not respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department also did not respond.

NBC News found Atchison was one of at least 223 people shot by federal agents, task force officers or local police assisting in cases tied to Justice Department law enforcement agencies from 2018 to 2022. During that period, local prosecutors, grand juries or law enforcement agencies deemed the shootings justified 98% of the time. Only two shootings, including the Atchison case, resulted in criminal charges against on-duty officers, according to the NBC News analysis.

Over the last three decades, a handful of local prosecutors have tried to convict federal agents or federal task force members of murder or manslaughter after fatal shootings. To date, none has succeeded, NBC News found. Cases typically get moved to federal court, where they are more likely to be dismissed. Federal laws and a series of Supreme Court decisions allow Kim and other local officers on federal task forces to argue that they are immune from local prosecution.

Jake Best, Ossoff’s spokesperson, declined to comment. In his letter, Ossoff requested that the GAO examine which Justice Department task forces include local officers, the accountability mechanisms that apply to those officers and how the agency deals with differences between the rules those officers follow when they are serving as local or federal cops.

“The law and policies governing these task forces are complicated, and conflicts can arise in their governance,” Ossoff wrote, asking, “What is known about the extent to which state and local law enforcement practices are disallowed while these enforcement officers are participating in federal task forces?"

Since Atchison’s death, Georgia’s NAACP has been pushing for new federal legislation or Justice Department policy that would prevent local police officers on federal task forces who are charged with local crimes from moving their cases to federal court.

“That barrier allows them to escape accountability,” said Griggs, the organization’s president, who met with Ossoff last week. “We saw Jimmy’s case and other cases that were stonewalled for years.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com