Getting a Call from the FBI —

Participating in the FBI Citizens Academy

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in July 2009)

Last January, there was a message in my answering machine from Pittsburgh’s FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) office asking me to call them back in connection with one of their outreach programs. I wondered why they selected me for the program. Having traveled to many counties on work, did I unknowingly violate any of the National Security guidelines?  Is the “Outreach Program” a euphemism to lessen the impact?

I promptly called their office the next day, hoping to soon be out of their radar screen. Much to my surprise, they told me they would like to nominate me for the FBI Citizens Academy Program. If selected, I need to commit myself for an 8-week course held once a week between 5:30 pm and 9:00 pm. They asked, “Are you interested?”

My nervousness vanished. But I was curious. Who are the other nominees? I wanted to be sure what I was getting into. They told me the other attendees are citizens from a variety of backgrounds all from around the Pittsburgh area. After checking with my supervisor at work, I accepted their nomination.

On the first day, they set the stage: Law enforcement is society’s response to crime and violence by people against fellow citizens.  Traditionally, the thrust in law enforcement has been prosecuting crimes after they are committed. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, questions were raised on this approach by elected officials, citizens groups, and by the law enforcement agencies themselves.

Prosecuting crimes is still important. But preventing crimes was seen as more desirable and cost-effective than prosecuting crimes. After all, law enforcement agencies are there to protect law-abiding citizens. 

Further, till 9-11, law enforcement agencies at the local, county, state and federal levels were silos, often having very little communication with each other. Since the resources of law enforcement agencies are finite, there were advantages in breaking down walls between them and using each other’s resources to their collective advantage.

The FBI took this idea one step further, deciding to build bridges by using citizens at large as partners in preventing crimes. Towards this, the FBI holds a structured 8 to 10-week course titled “FBI Citizens Academy” in key locations every alternate year. FBI selects the participants from a WIDE cross section of citizenry – teachers, postal employees, community organizers, lawyers, company executives, entrepreneurs, chaplains, and sometimes even celebrities. My class included Franco Harris of Immaculate Reception fame, giving myself the lifetime bragging rights to claim Franco Harris as my classmate!!!  😉

On the first day, nearly forty well accomplished but regular-looking (except Harris) citizens (both black and white) were at the FBI  office in the South Side. I was the only conspicuously looking non-mainstream guy. 

Naively, I thought the emphasis would be on terrorism, particularly external ones –  al Qaeda and the like. But external terrorism was only a small part in one session. They also discussed internal terrorists, both right-wing (Unabomber, Oklahoma City) and left wing.

Each week, they had two or three sessions. The topics covered the whole gamut: drug trafficking and money laundering; public corruption by judges and elected officials such as congressmen, state representatives, city councilmen; organized crime; violence against minors and child pornography; corruption inside law enforcement agencies themselves including the FBI; crimes related to intellectual property; and many others.

In the training, they were the first ones to admit that they too, sometimes, make mistakes and  their own personnel commit crimes. The speakers — all veteran FBI officials — highlighted some of their high-profile cases and how they prosecuted them. The program’s other highlights:

1.   Identifying and gathering blood and other DNA samples, fibers, foot prints in crime scenes – mostly painstaking grunt work that is nothing like what you see while watching an episode of CSI.

2.  Polygraph testing and psychological profiling.

3.  Managing a very real-life simulated terrorist threat in downtown Pittsburgh that involved poison gas, evacuation, hundreds of deaths; coordination with multiple agencies, making split-second decisions and having to live with the consequences of those decisions… …

4.  Police chase that simulates high-speed driving in a real police car, including wide/sharp turns, burning tires, and screeching halts.

5.  And finally, firearm training with live ammunition.

If you get a call from the FBI in future asking you if you would like to be nominated for the Citizens Academy, say “yes” rightaway. You will interact with a group of people coming from different backgrounds.  Given the insular lifestyles in the US, it is not easy to meet people from such a wide range of backgrounds. More difficult still is to get a flavor of the challenges law enforcing agencies face, the constraints under which they operate, and how they operate.      — End   


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