Ever wonder what it’s like to be an FBI agent? There are 56 Federal Bureau of Investigation field offices across the country and most offer citizens academies for community leaders. I participated in the FBI Citizens Academy last year in Tampa. Like local government and law enforcement citizens academies, the FBI Citizens Academy offers a multi-week look at why and how the bureau functions.
An Introduction to the Tampa FBI Field Office
“We want to peel the curtain back,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael McPherson told the class on the first night of the weekly, eight-week program at the Tampa FBI Field Office. Reflecting on the program after leaving FBI Headquarters, the FBI Citizens Academy did peel back the curtain. I learned and saw how the men and women of this federal law enforcement agency work diligently to fulfil its mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution of the U.S.
The Tampa field office represents 18 counties from Tampa across the state to Brevard County and south to Collier County. There are six resident agencies under the Tampa office including in Fort Myers and Sarasota. There were about 30 of us in the class representing different industries.
The FBI Citizens Academy Experience
The FBI’s priorities are protecting the U.S. against terrorist attacks, foreign intelligence operations and espionage, cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes; protect civil rights; and combat public corruption at all levels, transnational/national criminal organizations and enterprises, major white-collar crime, and significant violent crime. Each week, different special agents and analysts who work on specific priorities addressed the class.
The Evidence Response Team unit shared how it responds to incidents and how they collect evidence like lifting fingerprints from a soda can. This team responded to the Pulse Nightclub shooting in June 2016 to gather evidence. We put ourselves in the shoes of agents during a shoot, don’t shoot exercise with a mock firearm and a video playing out a different scenario for each student. The cybersecurity unit is a wakeup call to enable two-factor authentication on websites and use as complicated passwords as you can remember, and do not have your computer remember them.
Range Day was a Blast!
One class was at the firearms range where agents train quarterly. Under supervision, we fired about six firearms including pistols, a 12-guage shotgun, Thompson submachine gun, and an M-16 rifle. The Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team demonstrated how they raid houses as we looked down from the second story of a mock home. The Hazard Materials (HAZMAT) unit shared how they monitor the air and collect materials. And the day was a blast! Thanks to bomb squad who detonated homemade devices and ones that can be easily purchased.
The eight-week program, two of which I missed due to business conferences, concluded with a graduation ceremony arranged by the class. The citizens academy rounded out with an optional, pay-your-way trip to Washington, D.C. About a dozen graduates toured the FBI Academy grounds and FBI Headquarters. The academy is on the Marine Corps Base Quantico. The base is about 86 square miles and located about 40 miles from Washington, D.C. The FBI Academy occupies 547 acres of the base and requires a special clearance to enter.
A Look Inside the FBI Academy
The trip to Washington, D.C., was about six weeks following. The FBI Academy provided an overview of the 20-week training program for new agent trainees (NATs). Some of the requirements to join the FBI as an agent include being between the ages of 23 and 36, U.S. citizen, able to obtain Top-Secret Clearance, possess a valid driver’s license, and not have been convicted of a felony. The process includes drug testing, background check, and a polygraph test. Agents must retire at age 57, although they can extend their assignment on a year-by-year basis to a specific age.
The FBI’s motto is Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity and NATs study core basics as ethics, law, and behavioral science along with interviewing, report writing and interrogation. Much of their training is physical and includes defensive tactics, handcuffing, investigative techniques, and tactical driving (professional stock car racers Chase Elliott and Jeff Gordon have shared some of their skills with the FBI).
While at the FBI Academy, we saw NATs training at the range and learned when they first arrive, they are issued a blue resin non-firing pistol so they can become accustom to carrying and safe handling of a firearm. They are eventually issued a red non-firing pistol to become accustom to reloading and removing it from their holster. These pistols weigh as much as a Glock 19M, an agent’s primary weapon which is issued upon graduation. By the time special agents graduate, they have each fired 4,400 rounds from a Glock 19M, 620 rounds from a Colt M4 and 127 rounds from a Remington 870.
A Stroll Through Crime-Ridden Hogan’s Alley
One of the highlights was walking through the small downtown in Hogan’s Alley. It looks like any other downtown in the United States. There appears to be a bank, post office, motel, drug store, and hardware store. Coca Cola is painted on one of the brick walls and the marque at the Biograph, the town’s movie theater, reads “Manhattan Melodrama, Clark Gable & Myrna Loy.”
Earning its name from crime-ridden Hogan’s Alley in the 1890s comic strip “The Yellow Kid,” there is something distinctively different. It does not have the typical hustle and bustle sound. Depending on the day, hear a spray of semi-automatic firearms or machine guns in the distance. The bank has been robbed multiple times and the hardware store is linked to terrorism. Referred as the crime capital of the world, for more than 30 years Hogan’s Alley has been the tactical training grounds for Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration new agent trainees.
Bystanders and criminals are played by theatrical performers and former agents and it allows trainees to learn skills and apply them before heading into the field. Word on the street is, just like cats, NATs have nine lives while training in Hogan’s Alley, but after graduation, when NATs become special agents and enter the field, they only have one life.
Why the Biograph Marquee in Hogan’s Alley?
As for the Biograph marquee in Hogan’s Alley, here’s the story. On a hot, Chicago July evening in 1934, notorious gangster John Dillinger went to the Biograph to watch a film. It was the “Manhattan Melodrama” starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. The movie theater had air conditioning and was a popular spot to cool off. One of Dillinger’s lady friends tipped off the FBI about his location. After leaving the theater, he was shot and killed by federal agents. He was 31 years old. The marquee in Hogan’s Alley bears the name of that theater and movie. It is one of the reminders of what the FBI has accomplished since its founding on July 26, 1908.
A Look Inside the FBI Laboratory
The FBI Academy visit included a stop at the FBI Laboratory which is the country’s only federal forensic laboratory. Field offices across the country send evidence for processing. Annually, they receive about 100,000 pieces of evidence from about 10,000 cases.
FBI Headquarters and the FBI Experience
The FBI Headquarters visit was a few days following release of the Office of the Inspector General’s Review of Four FISA Applications and Other Aspects of the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane Investigation. FISA, which stands for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, establishes procedures for collection and surveillance on those suspected of espionage or terrorism. I suggest you read the report rather than relying on the interpretations by media or elected officials to understand the IG’s findings. As with the eight weeks of the citizens academy, members of the FBI are aware of its public image and are confident the agency will survive.
Typically, FBI Director Christopher Wray addresses the visiting citizens academy groups in person, however, he was understandably unavailable. Instead, we watched a welcome video from Wrey. The Headquarters team was evaluating and addressing the December 6 Naval Air Station Pensacola shooting (terrorism) and December 10 Jersey City shooting (hate crime). During our tour into a secure area, where electronic items are prohibited, we saw some of the working areas but could not view them in action. The half-day visit concluded with a tour of the FBI Experience. This is a museum with artifacts from notable cases, overview of the FBI, and interactive multimedia exhibits.
The Wall of Honor
Notable in Headquarters, as well as in the FBI Academy and the Tampa Field Office, is the Wall of Honor. It memorializes the 36 FBI agents killed as a direct result of an adversarial action and 42 agents and one professional staff who gave their lives during law enforcement duty. The wall is a reminder of their ultimate sacrifice and will always be remembered.
Visits to the academy and headquarters included stops at the respective gift shops for FBI apparel and gifts. Even the Tampa Field Office has a small gift shop open to authorized visitors.
If You Have the Opportunity, Enroll in the FBI Citizens Academy
The FBI Citizens Academy showed me how reality is much different than Hollywood’s portrayal of the agency. For instance, extensive paperwork is needed for wiretaps, which are typically requested in cases as a last resort. It usually takes days, maybe a month or so, for a judge to approve. Would the “Silence of the Lambs” synopsis ever happen in reality? No, I was assured the FBI would never send an FBI trainee to meet with a serial killer to solve another case involving a serial killer.
This program opened my eyes to some of the threats facing our nation and how the FBI is addressing them. The FBI is aware how the public, including elected officials, perceive the agency, for good and for bad. Rather than working on public relations spin, the agency focuses on what they do best, and that is working to safeguard the Constitution of the United States and protect its citizens. It is the country’s top law enforcement agency. Other agencies from around the world looks up to the FBI.
Agents, analysts, and other professional staff are part of our community, although they may frequently move due to reassignments. They cut their lawn, support their kids during sporting events, and attend concerts for date night, just like everyone else. Some neighbors may know they’re living next door to a special agent. Others may think they live next to a boring insurance salesman.
Now that my experience is complete, I feel th eneed to clarify some things you may be thinking. I was not been deputized. Nor am I a special agent or analyst. I am neither an informant or recruiter. However, I join hundreds of others who have completed the FBI Citizens Academy. These are a group of alumni who help carry the message of what the agency does and offer support where possible. Following the Pulse Night Club shooting, the alumni group provided meals for the FBI agents working countless hours and days at the scene. I will continue being an average U.S. citizen who loves this country. I will be much more aware of how the FBI is working for us and how I can assist them.
Nuts & Bolts About the FBI
For more information on the FBI including news, what they work on, most wanted, resources, and employment, visit www.FBI.gov. The agency does not comment on ongoing investigations.
FBI Citizens Academy – Tampa Field Office
Offered twice a year at either the Tampa Field Office or one of the resident agencies. The multi-week program is open to community leaders through a nomination process. Fingerprinting and a background check are conditions for acceptance into the program. Learn more at https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/tampa/community-outreach
Employment with the FBI
The FBI is always seeking candidates for special agents, analysts, and professional staff careers. Critical skills the agency is seeking for special agents include computer science or IT, intelligence experience, and physical science. They also seek law, military experience, and foreign language specialists (some being Arabic, Chinese – all dialects, Farsi, Korean, and Russian). Although there is an age restriction for special agents (23 – 36) there is not an age restriction for other positions. The hiring process may take over a year. Learn more at www.FBIjobs.gov.
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