Women of the Cleveland U.S. Marshals are armed and arresting violent fugitives across Northern Ohio

CLEVELAND - On a given day, Deputy U.S. Marshals grab their badge, strap on a gun and a bulletproof vest to arrest violent criminals.

And that's really a normal day for the women.

“My parents would tell people, ‘My daughter is with the Marshals.’ And they go, ‘Oh, my daughter loves shopping there’,” said Donna Faff, Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio.

Deputy Marshal Anne Murphy has experienced something similar when slapping cuffs on a fugitive.

“They look back and go, ‘You’re a girl!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m a girl.’”

For Denise Bortnick, Administrative Officer for the Northern Ohio Marshals, parents of her daughters’ friends wonder about her line of work.

“They always ask, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ People are always very interested. Number one question is, how did you get into the Marshal service?”

The answer is simple: with hard work.

Like any federal law enforcement agency, the U.S. Marshals Service is looking for a few good men to carryout its mission, and those “men” include hard-working and dedicated women.

Faff runs general operations for the Northern Ohio Marshals, which is based in the Cleveland federal building. She virtually has to authorize most operations there, the budget for them and communicate with different agencies about them.

She worked on warrant teams from 1991 to 2000, armed with a gun and hauling in fugitives. Sometimes, she still hits the streets with a team. She has done it all.

“I go court, I transport, I carry a gun, I’m a firearms instructor,” she said.

Bortnick is an officer, but she does not carry a gun.

“We have a few female deputies.”

One of them is Anne Murphy.

“We don’t all work with Tommy Lee Jones,” Murphy said, referencing the actor’s famous portrayal of a U.S. Marshal in “The Fugitive.”

But Murphy is part of a team that typically includes eight to ten men who search for and apprehend fugitives on the streets of Northern Ohio.

Nearly ten years ago, she interned with the Marshals in Akron while in college.

“I did my internship and thought, I want to be out on the street, investigating, talking to the public,” Murphy said.

After college, her first job in law enforcement was as a parole officer, and it took her eight years after her internship with the Marshals to get a job with them in Northern Ohio. She endured nineteen weeks of training at Glynco, Georgia.

“I was one of two girls in my class. Fifty students,” she said. “I never want to go back to basic training, but I learned a lot about the job and a lot about myself, things I was willing to put up with, things I wasn’t willing to put up with, which is important for this job.”

For Murphy, that means having the backs of the other people she serves warrants with on the Violent Fugitive Task Force, which U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott formed in 2003. When looking for a fugitive, the team of deputies will search a residence while wearing vests and gear.

“That’s more of our show of force – that we keep the danger contained to one house so it’s not in the neighborhood,” she said.

And whether it is fugitives or their family they encounter at the residence, the reaction is often the same.

“You can tell, they don’t expect to see a girl carrying a thigh rig and a big giant vest,” Murphy said. “They’re surprised to see me.”

Murphy also sports a pair of pink handcuffs on her belt, but much like the woman herself, don’t let looks deceive you – both are all business.

While the sight of a woman commanding authority might surprise some people, Murphy said most people are not surprised to see them.

“A lot of this is because of the Marshal, because he puts us out there, so you know who we are and what we do, so people know why we’re showing up at their houses,” Murphy said, crediting Elliott with working to develop and promote the Task Force over the years.

And it is called the Violent Fugitive Task Force for good reason – it hunts down dangerous criminals. Fortunately, violent confrontations with fugitives are more the exception than the rule.

“People hiding is more what we get,” Murphy said. “Sometimes I joke this is adult hide and seek we go to play. They know we’re in the house, they know we’re going to look for them.”

But sometimes, a warrant hit can turn violent in a second.

“Foot pursuits and barricaded subjects, that’s when it is most important that as a team you work together,” Murphy said.

Her family is proud of what she does, but that does not mean they know everything that goes into her days.

“They’re very excited to hear all the things we get to do and all the arrests we get to make,” she said. “I opt not to tell them the scary stuff.”

But being a woman can be useful on the streets. When a warrant team enters a home and children are present, Murphy takes it upon herself to talk with them.

“I’m probably less intimidating, so I like to talk to the kids,” she said. “One little girl in a princess dress… and I show her my badge and my cuffs and she goes, ‘Girls can’t be cops,’ and I go, ‘Yes, they can, girls can be cops.’”

Murphy believes those interactions could be life-changing for children who grow up exposed to crime.

“If there are kids with questions and they want to know what we do and why we do this, I love to talk to them,” she said. “If we’re doing a hit and there are kids, I’ll take a minute to talk to them, because sometimes they need a role model.”

More than that, Murphy hopes to shape the children’s view of the police from someone to fear as someone to trust.

“Which is why it’s so important to explain to kids, we’re not here to take your older brother away; we’re here to help, you can call 911,” she said. “Keep them calm and answer their questions, so that they’re not scared. I hope it opens their eyes up a little bit that the police aren’t there to arrest you and take you to jail.”

Although people often picture the Marshals as a group of men kicking down doors to arrest fugitives, those daily warrant hits must be financially approved. And those financial decisions fall on Denise Bortnick.

Jessica Bohr, who works under Bortnick, characterized it this way: “‘I might have a gun and badge and kick down doors,’ but if Denise says, ‘You don’t have funding,’ you’re not kicking down a door.”

Bortnick oversees the division of the Northern Ohio Marshals that seizes the assets from a criminal, appraises them, sells them, and returns the money to the community. She started her career in Washington, D.C. as a background investigator.

“I started off and worked my way into the highest position on the administrative side of the agency in the district. I manage all appropriations, all the funding,” Bortnick said.

As the District Asset Forfeiture Coordinator for the Northern Ohio Marshals, Bohr works closely with Bortnick. Prior to this position, she was in the military and the part of her job tracking threats translated well into the Marshals service.

“In terms of hunting fugitives, same idea as looking for a terrorist – where does he like to eat? – trying to find someone and predict,” Bohr said.

Before coming to the Cleveland district, Bohr worked with the Marshals in Washington, D.C. and did not know what to expect in Northern Ohio.

“Coming from headquarters, I was a little worried what it was going to be like, but it’s a good district,” Bohr said. “I like the challenge – that’s the best part. There’s always some new puzzle to solve.”

Beyond that, Bohr appreciates the relationships she has developed with other agencies and regular citizens in a short amount of time.

“Obviously, the people I’ve gotten to meet in the job,” she said. “You learn customer service dealing with other departments and defense attorneys. In the district, what’s great is we have the ability to work with people that we’re seizing things from. You can really get an appreciation or an understanding.”

Talking with other departments is an hourly occurrence for Donna Faff, who has been with the Marshals for 22 years. She grew up in Pittsburgh and doesn’t hesitate to display her fondness for the Steelers with her office décor.

“I just live here to agitate all the sports fans,” she joked, regarding her coworkers.

Faff was the first one in her family to graduate from college. She got her degree in three years and always pictured herself helping others.

“I wanted to do social work in the law enforcement field, but I liked social work aspect of it, trying to help people,” she said.

After college, five different government agencies responded to Faff. One was the U.S. Marshals.

“I knew nothing about any of the agencies,” she admitted, “but if I had to do it all over again, I’d still choose the Marshals.”

And that’s because Faff’s career with the Marshals has allowed her to do what she always wanted.

“Helping people,” she said. “That’s pretty much everybody. Helping the deputies, family members, attorneys. Just the fact that you’re helping somebody, you’re making a difference. I always thought I wanted to be a social worker. But it’s kind of come full circle, cause that’s kind of what my job is.”

From talking with fugitives and their families, Murphy also learned a lot.

“Working with parole in the state building taught me everybody is different, everybody has their story to tell, they’re not all good guys or bad guys,” she said.

That requirement to be able to talk to everyone with a level of respect has helped Faff go far.

“Been to pretty much every major city because of this job,” she said. “Most of it was my flexibility being able to travel. I’m an interviewer, and got to travel from Alaska to Atlanta.”

But Faff must talk to and address more than the problems of the fugitives, their lawyers and families. She oftentimes is the one her coworkers turn to. Because she oversees general operations for the Northern Ohio Marshals daily, Faff must take into account each Deputy’s personal issues.

“I have to deal with all their kid issues, all their day care issues, marriage issues,” she said. “It’s a shoulder to lean on, or they come to tell me. It’s sometimes a role reversal in our office because sometimes the guys have more benefits and flexibility.”

The experience Bortnick gained in Northern Ohio also served her well. She has had the opportunity to help shape policy for the Marshals service nationwide.

“The best part is, I’ve been able to work with people in D.C., so I’ve been on a lot of committees,” she said. “We advise the Director on our opinion on certain things. So that’s probably the best example – being able to work with other Marshals, work with other districts, have heavy input with policies in Washington.”

In fact, most people are probably unaware that the Director for the U.S. Marshals Service is also a woman – Stacia Hylton.

“We get together three to four times a year, and work with the Director, being part of making decisions for entire agency and having district input,” Bortnick said. “I met a lot of good people, made a lot of friends, and made a lot of contacts because of it.”

Bortnick has also been able to introduce her daughters to her job.

“I was able to bring them with me on some trips and they were able to see some programs with the Marshals service,” she said.

Marshal or not, her children are just like anybody else’s.

“Their favorite part is the dogs,” Bortnick said, smiling. “I brought my girls to D.C. one time for a Director’s ceremony. I was getting an award. All they cared about – I don’t think they cared what I was there for – was the dogs. They had all of the Marshals’ dogs there.”

While Bortnick may have the opportunity to include her children on work-related travel, Murphy enjoys visiting Northeast Ohio children – at their schools.

“We go to all kinds of schools, we talk to anybody and everybody,” she said. “A lot of kids have a lot of really intelligent questions, things they’ve seen on TV or research that they’ve done. If you can get that through to five kids, that’s at least five less kids that will get in trouble.”

For these reasons, each of the women stand by the work they do, and they’re not alone.

“My mom and dad and my sister and my husband are very proud of what I do,” Murphy said.

On the streets or behind a desk, U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio Pete Elliott is just as proud of everyone he works with who helps the service achieve its mission, regardless of gender.

“Years ago, they thought this was a man-only sport, so to speak. Obviously, it’s not,” Elliott said. “We have outstanding women in leadership in the district. In the last few years, there’s a phenomenal rise in the amount of women interested in the Marshals service. The women here are outstanding; they do a tremendous job in Cleveland, Akron, and the rest of the district… I love it when any women in the district excel.”

And the women of the Northern Ohio Marshals agree.

“People would never guess. They would never assume I’m a U.S. Marshal, but I’ve never gotten any grief over it,” Faff said. “I’ve never experienced anybody questioning me because I’m a female. I think they have more respect for me.”

Bortnick is grateful to the Marshals service for making her aspirations possible.

“Working up to this position, I’ve had to learn so many policies and procedures,” she said. “I couldn’t think about, at this point in my life with all the background that I have, walking away from it.”

For Murphy, the sense of camaraderie and justice go right along with the dangers – it’s all part of the job.

“It’s the best job in the planet. I love my job,” Murphy said. “There’s something new to do every day. There are new challenges every day, new obstacles every day. And the team that I get to work with is the best group of guys. I trust them with my life. I am very thankful we get along. It really is the best team.”

More information can be found here: http://www.usmarshals.gov/district/oh-n/index.html.

[Look for Colin McDermott’s weekly series about the U.S. Marshals of the Northern District of Ohio.]

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