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Justice, Integrity, Service … A Journey with the U.S. Marshals Service

June 5, 2019


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From the Winter/Spring Issue of Western: The Magazine for Western Illinois University Alumni

By Darcie Dyer Shinberger '89 '98 & Brad Bainter '79 MS'83


The United States Marshals Service (USMS) is the nation's oldest and most versatile federal law enforcement agency. Since 1789, federal marshals have served the nation through a variety of law enforcement activities, including fugitive apprehension, witness protection and prisoner transport ("Con Air," anyone?!). And one Western Illinois University graduate made the U.S. Marshals Service his life's work.

Ninety-four U.S. marshals, appointed by the president or the U.S. Attorney General, direct the activities of 94 district offices and personnel stationed at more than 350 locations throughout the nation, and approximately 4,800 deputy marshals and career employees perform nationwide, day-to-day missions. David Harlow '82, a law enforcement and justice administration graduate, started as one of those 4,800 deputy marshals back in 1983. Thirty-two years later, Harlow found himself at the helm of the USMS as acting director. He served in that capacity until his retirement in January 2018.

So, how did a suburban Oak Forest (IL) youth end up at Western, then with an elite government law enforcement agency one year after his graduation? Because of family and certainly by chance, Harlow said.

"My sister went to school at Western, so I'd been here for a few visits. I was a track athlete in high school, and WIU had high hurdles, so I thought I'd walk onto the track team. I came here for school and for track, and learned very quickly that I was not a college athlete," Harlow laughed. "The coach and my teammates were great, and because they took some pity on me, I supposed, I was able to run during the indoor and outdoor season, but I wasn't in the same league as the other athletes."

Harlow said in addition to thinking he could run track at Western, in high school he was also into computers. "I thought I was better at computers than I truly was," he said. So, of course, he first majored in computer science.

"For the first time in my life, I wasn't enjoying things I thought I had always been good at. My friend in Wetzel Hall had registered for an Intro to Law Enforcement class, so he talked me into joining him in the class. I can't remember exactly who the professor was, either Bill Johnson '76 or Stan Cunningham '77 MA '79, but what I do remember is the passion this professor had for his job and his students. That's all it took for me to change my major to law enforcement," Harlow said. "I have such a debt of gratitude for Western. Law enforcement was the furthest thing from my mind when I first got here, but that first class and every one after, I felt the passion come through my professors. They had experience in the field and they brought that to class."

When Harlow graduated in 1982, he moved to Minnesota, with his wife, Lisa—who he met on Wetzel 11 and admitted they "didn't like each other very much at first"—where her parents owned a business and offered her a job. Harlow began applying for law enforcement jobs, while working at a Mobil gas station. He was hired by the U.S. Marshals Service one year later, and Lisa and David moved to the Buckeye State.

"Believe it or not, I took a $7,000 pay cut to become a federal agent. My salary as a deputy marshal was $13,000, and I was making $20,000 at the gas station," he said.

Harlow said his hire as a recent graduate was a new initiative for the USMS. The general rule back then, he explained, was in order to work for a federal law enforcement agency, an individual had to first work for a local law enforcement department. In the mid-80s, the agency decided to hire young graduates right out of college, so Harlow's USMS class was half new graduates and half nine- to 10-year law enforcement veterans. His first duty station after the academy was in the Toledo, OH, office.

"It turned out to be a blessing. Had I been assigned to a large office, I would have been pigeon-holed. The Toledo office was a four-man office covering 21 counties. We had something different going on every day, so I really got some great experience there," Harlow said. "But had the USMS had K-9 officers back in the day, my story would have been much different. I'd still be a deputy U.S. marshal in a truck with my dog."

The Harlows made Toledo their home for 18 years. It was only during the last few years on the job in Toledo that he felt his family could be in danger because of his job.

"Honestly, early on in my career, we didn't worry about it. We were in a relatively small town and we had a group of ‘regulars.' We knew who the bad guys were and where they were at, so I just told my wife to be aware," Harlow explained. "The one time I was really worried was when I was in a mall with my toddler son and my other son, who was a baby and was in my arms, when I saw a man approaching us who I'd sent to prison. I didn't know how I was going to draw my gun and protect my children if I needed to. But it ended up okay. He approached me and told me I saved his life."

Harlow added that his youngest son, that baby in the mall, is now a police officer, and they joke he had his first arrest at the age of 9 when he was with his dad during a "Take Your Child to Work" day. They were having lunch at Subway and Harlow's men were on a fugitive hunt. They called Harlow to tell him where they thought the fugitive was, what he was driving and the vehicle's plate number.

"I wrote it down, and my son, who had been looking out the window, turned to me and said ‘Dad, the numbers match the license on that car.' Sure enough, our guy had switched plates from an Escort to a Continental and my 9-year-old caught it," he laughed.

After a few more years in Toledo, Harlow was promoted to chief deputy marshal for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland, where he served for six years. Harlow made numerous contributions while assigned to Northern Ohio, including serving as national commander of Operation FALCON 2007, serving as deputy commander of operation FALCON III, developing Toledo's first cooperative fugitive apprehension team consisting of multiple law enforcement agencies, and overseeing the development of the Northern Ohio Violent Fugitive Task Force.

Before arriving at USMS Headquarters in D.C., he was the chief deputy marshal for the Eastern District of Virginia from 2007-08. In 2008, Harlow took over what may have been his toughest role of his career: chief of the Sex Offender Investigations Branch, where he oversaw the development and deployment of the Agency's Sex Offender Apprehension Program. He also oversaw the interagency National Sex Offender Targeting Center and developed the USMS Behavioral Analysis Unit to assist with prioritizing and targeting non-compliant and fugitive sex offenders. It was in this role, which he served from 2008-12, when he met John Walsh, the creator of "America's Most Wanted" and father of Adam Walsh, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1981.

"The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was signed into law by U.S. President George W. Bush on July 27, 2006, which allowed the USMS to hunt those who prey on children and also put into place a consistent registry for law enforcement to track pedophiles," Harlow explained. "What we learned in our work was that pedophiles are never cured and must be kept track of. It was a very tough job. You see and hear terrible things every day. You're exposed to some truly awful people. I've been a part of violent fugitive task forces, but in the sex offender realm, you see the darkest side of people that sear your soul."

In his role as chief, Harlow, along with Dr. Michael Bourke, chief psychologist of the USMS Behavioral Analysis Division, created a Safeguarding Program, which was designed to help state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as the marshals, cope with what they dealt with in their career. As Harlow pointed out, what marshals see as a part of the sex offense investigations aren't things that one can drink away or take up a hobby that will take your mind off what you've seen.

"There's a shelf life for those who work on sex offense crimes, especially if you have children. We saw that our agents and officials who worked in sex crimes would start to pull away from their family, but most didn't want to see the ‘shrink squad' to talk over what they were going through. We had to change that culture," he explained. "We really wanted to make sure that they could seek help for themselves and their families. We needed to give them the tools to stay healthy. Employee Assistance Programs are good, but they are like putting on a bullet proof vest after you've been shot. Our officers need the tools before they're affected, but even then there are things you just cannot forget."

After four years leading the Sex Offender Investigations Branch, Harlow was promoted to the senior executive service when he was selected as the assistant director of the Investigative Operations Division (IOD), overseeing the agency's extensive fugitive investigations mission. From 2012-14, Harlow served as the associate director for operations, managing the USMS Operational Directorate, which includes Investigative Operations, Judicial Security, Witness Security, Tactical Operations, Prisoner Operations and the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System.

As Harlow has served in every branch of the USMS and led the agency, when asked about how the USMS is portrayed in the movies (think Tommy Lee Jones) and television shows, he grinned and said while things like "Con Air" certainly exist, "it's nothing like the movie with Nicholas Cage."

"The movie ‘The Fugitive' is pretty reasonable in some parts, but most of that movie and others are off base. For example, in ‘Justify' they did an awful lot of shooting. In reality, that just doesn't happen," Harlow said. "As for the mob, it still exists, but there are a lot more than just the Cosa Nostra out there and it's more underground. It was more public back in the day. The witness protection is still obviously in place, and to date, we haven't had one witness harmed and thousands have been through the program."

While times have changed for the USMS, and criminals have certainly gotten more sophisticated over the years. Harlow said the advent of social media has made the job more difficult—and dangerous—yet in the same vein, also a little easier.

"We may be on the hunt for a fugitive, and one of our behind-the-scenes tech guys will come across the violent, hardened criminal who just took a selfie in front of the 7-Eleven and posted it on Instagram," he pointed out. "It's easier to threaten people now, but it's also easier to track them down. However, they can also find us much easier. Our names, our addresses, what our families look like... social media puts so much more out there for the bad guys."

After working in the field and overseeing several branches, units and divisions over the years, Harlow was named deputy director in 2014 and acting director in July 2015. In spite of some of the horrific things he's seen over the years, Harlow has been happy with his career and the accomplishments it has brought. He has received numerous accolades, including Attorney General's Awards, Director's Awards and several special act and performance awards.

"I've had a lot of wonderful experiences, and unfortunately, I've also had to attend a lot of funerals. I've worked some very big cases and very big events. I've seen heinous people arrested and put away for life. It's nice to know I've contributed to society and made a difference," he said.

While he's still easing into retirement, Harlow remains an active member of the federal law enforcement community. He serves as a consultant for law enforcement agencies and private entities that service them. He plans on continuing his work with John Walsh and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and he is a member the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

Because of an experience that occurred in 2011, when nine deputy marshals and special deputy U.S. Marshals were killed in the line of duty in a two-month span—the first marshals lost since 1992—Harlow and several others started a USMS Survivors Benefit Fund. When he was promoted to the senior executive service, he had to recuse himself from the initiative, but after retirement, he's back working with the board, which raises funds to ensure the survivors of a marshal killed in the line of duty have their bills paid while awaiting "line of duty insurance." The board's goal is to pay for college for every child of a fallen marshal.
When he's not working as a consultant or with the Benefit Fund Board, David and Lisa can be found camping, and recently, the pair followed their lifelong dream of traveling the old Route 66 in his Mustang convertible.

"We did the ‘brown sign' tour, and we stopped for every ‘World's Largest Ball of Twine' and stayed in a wigwam in Holbrook, Arizona," he grinned. "For the first time in 35 years, we took more than a one-week vacation. That said, I still expect a call when I hear sirens in the distance, and now, instead of dealing with 500 emails a day, I'm lucky if I get a coupon from Home Depot. I'm still getting used to not having anything to do after Sunday. And I drive the speed limit now and just put the cruise on."

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Harlow's Words of Wisdom

* You can go into law enforcement without a badge or a gun. Eight thousand people are arrested each year due to the work of the person behind the computer in the USMS. You don't have to be a squad car or chase bad guys or have sniper skills.
* Law enforcement often is hours of boredom followed by minutes of terror.
* You can major (or minor) in computer science, pre-law, psychology, fitness. There are all sorts of ways to get into federal law enforcement.
* Look at all your college coursework. It's important to have enthusiasm for what you're doing. Do what you love. I loved what I did for more than 30 years, and it started at Western.

Posted By: Darcie Shinberger (DR-Shinberger@wiu.edu)
Office of University Relations