A few months ago, I had the privilege of chatting with two retired FBI agents, Bucky and Chris Cox. They had spoken at a Sisters in Crime event and their story was so interesting that I wanted to know more. Research for the FBI articles, “What Does the FBI Do?” “The Road to Quantico,” and “FBI Training at Quantico,” was nearly finished, but interviews with people that had actually done the job gave a human face to one of the most famous law enforcement agencies in the world.
They shared that as many as 14-16K FBI applicants from a variety of professions compete for 600 jobs. Your background skillset is important for the available slots, but the FBI will teach you what else you need to know in order to conduct investigations.
Bucky is former military and became a police officer while he worked his way through school. He wanted to be an FBI agent from the time he was 11 years old and his dream was realized when he went through a 16 week training program at Quantico in the class of 1973. There was lots of physical work during the instruction, but in actuality, most of the course was academic. His class was made up of all white males.
Academy training gives you a taste of what you will need to succeed and you also get an idea of what you like/want to do in the FBI. It’s possible to spend an entire career focused in one area of law enforcement (i.e. intelligence work) but often, agents might have 10-15 different jobs within the agency.
Bucky started with property crime in the L.A. office; one case involved someone ripping off lobster tails from shipments from Australia. Among his memorable assignments were:
- Drug operations
- Kidnapping cases
- The Uni-bomber case
- Working with other agencies in information sharing
- Internal FBI Inspections (comparisons and improvements of/to places, people, and cases)
- Mentoring younger agents
- Using his own initiative and imagination
Chris began as an English Lit Major in college. Upon graduation from college, she entered into a retail management program at a local department store, then became an assistant buyer for a year. She returned to graduate school and obtained a Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work (MSW). Around that time, the work world changed for women due to legislation that was passed, and women were accepted into law enforcement. Chris entered duty with the FBI in 1978 at Quantico, becoming one of the earliest female FBI agents. Calling upon her experience as a clinical social worker, she was able to use those skills as an Agent, while conducting interviews to flesh out backgrounds and uncover motives. She worked in a variety of areas at the beginning, including organized crime and bank robberies, but was eventually assigned full time to foreign counter terrorism.
Chris is currently a retired member of the bar in: NY, NJ, CT, D.C., and the Supreme Court. While assigned to the Legal Counsel Division at FBIHQ, she handled internal administrative cases and also conducted legal research in areas affecting the FBI. On occasion, she worked with her counterparts at the Department of Justice if their cases reached district court level. She was promoted to Unit Chief at FBIHQ, then went to the field as a Squad supervisor, and finally, as an Assistant Agent in Charge (ASAC) of a large field office.
Read on for some nuts and bolts details they shared about working as FBI agents.
When does the FBI get involved in a case?
Crossing state lines during the commission of a crime is the main criteria for determining when the FBI can be involved. As a general rule, they are invited to participate, especially in kidnapping cases. They don’t storm into town and take over cases as some TV shows and movies would have you believe. The FBI frequently works with other agencies in providing investigative information, resources, and expertise to them. Of special note: the FBI and the DEA have concurrent jurisdiction in drug cases. This also happens when working with local police departments on bank robberies/bank burglaries.
Field Offices and the Details of the Job
All 50 states have either a field office or a resident agent. There are squads within each field office and each supervisor will have at least eight Special Agents on a squad. The larger the office, the more specialized the jobs; the smaller the office, the more parts of the case you get to touch; Some offices are small offshoots of the field office, where four or five people and a secretary work arm-in-arm with the local police department and have more interaction with the public. In a larger office, you might be transferred or loaned between squads if your skill sets are needed for different cases. In addition to the 56 field offices and 350 satellite offices in the USA, the FBI has 60 international offices, called legal attaches, located in U.S. embassies around the world.
Good Surveillance requires at least five or six agents on the ground. In addition, some operations require agents in the air – the pilot watches the ground and the co-pilot watches for other aircraft.
We all see credentials being flashed by law enforcement personnel on TV. The FBI credentials must be carried by the agents 24/7 and they are told/trained to never give them up. There are career consequences to losing them.
Working at the FBI does not pay nearly as well as the private sector. Agents are paid on the GS (General Schedule) scale or SES (Senior Executive Services) scale. Incremental raises are based on years served. There is now a pay adjustment for the field office location (housing is MUCH more expensive in NYC than in Montana), as well as more overtime paid than there used to be for those round-the-clock hours needed on rapidly unfolding cases. The recent government shutdown seriously affected the FBI with mandatory furloughs and hampered its ability to work on all aspects of the cases currently under investigation. The FBI is a federal agency, so is paid in the same fashion and from the same coffers as other federal employees. A three month gap in paychecks may not happen often, but can be a serious consideration when looking at steady employment options.
Agents are trained to work the case in systematic ways. Among other strategies, they conduct interviews, knock on doors, circulate photos if needed, or collect/compare fingerprints. They continue to investigate until they and the DOJ attorney feel they have enough to successfully prosecute.
FBI are investigators who can make arrests after a thorough investigation indicates probable cause to believe that a suspect has committed the crime of which he/she is being accused. Before the arrest warrant can be issued, a US Attorney reviews an affidavit requesting the arrest warrant and then a Judge reviews and signs off on it if he/she agrees. There is an arrest plan, so that the arrest itself is conducted as safely and efficiently as possible. An agent does not make an arrest on his/her own. There are at least two levels of management involved in the decision.
Training never stops. Back in the 70s, the sixteen week course at Quantico touched on a little bit of everything, including classroom work, photography, tire casting, intelligence, and investigation of violent crimes. Now there are forensic teams in law enforcement, cybercrime affecting all of us, and world-wide terrorism. The training has evolved to meet today’s demands. Quantico training is not just for entering agents, however. If a class is being offered to active agents or the boss says ‘I need you to attend,’ agents can be selected for in-service training. There is some on the job instruction, but agents do go back to school for specialized areas or even refresher courses.
Bucky and Chris Cox continued to provide a wealth of details about working for the FBI.
Stay tuned for: “Do you want to be an FBI agent? – Part 2”
Photo credits: official FBI photos