A while back, I stumbled upon someone discussing their experience at the FBI Citizens’ Academy. I’ll be honest, what really attracted me was them describing their “range day” where they got to play with some of the FBI’s guns. I did some more digging and found some links to my local FBI Field Office (Charlotte Division) and a contact email. After a quick email, I had the info I needed to put my name on the list for the next class. January 2012 came and I was contacted with an application for the Citizens’ Academy. A short while afterward, I was notified of my acceptance and all the details. Since details were relatively scarce on the all-knowing internet about the details of a typical class, I figured it would be a good idea to pass on my experience here in a journal type of report for those interested in a future class. I’ll keep updating here as the class progresses through its 9-week semester.
First things first, the Citizens’ Academy is intended to be an FBI outreach program to communities surrounding their field offices. They want to show folks what they do and how they do it in hopes of gaining the people’s trust, making some relationships in the community (they attest to maintaining contact with previous “graduates” in some form or fashion), and just plain enlightenment about the crimes and criminals they handle. They prefer participants be some sort of business, community, or religious leader so you can spread the word of the FBI in your groups. Here’s the official FBI webpage here and here.
There is an invite and application process…it’s not just open to anyone off the street. They want to know who you are (obviously) and what you do (professionally and recreationally). They do a basic background check and request a short bio to introduce you to the Agents helping run the show and the other participants. I got invited to apply by simply emailing the Charlotte public contact at Charlotte.firstname.lastname@example.org. I believe classes are only once per year, so around January I got the application in the mail and I was notified of selection in early March. The class started a week ago in mid-April. So if you inquire now, you’ll likely get a response, but it’ll be a while until the next class. I was straight up about my hobbies, specifically shooting. I thought it might hinder my chances of getting selected, but obviously it didn’t.
After being selected, I was briefed on the basics of the class: dress code (business casual), meeting times (6-9:30pm once per week), accessing the building through security, no cell phones allowed in the building, no cameras (except for range day), etc. It wasn’t until I showed up for the first class that I saw the full syllabus. Basically each night presents two or three different aspects that the FBI (specifically the Charlotte office) does. A day at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department gun range is included where we’ll get to shoot MP5’s, M4’s, and other tools of the trade. Everything is supposed to be capped with a “graduation” at a fancy restaurant here in town. Afterward, there’s an actual alumni association you can join which does annual events including trips to Washington, DC to tour FBI HQ. Basically, you’re not getting any sort of certification or even real training on anything. It’s 100% informational and a unique opportunity to see a good portion of what the FBI does…not to mention, you get to shoot their class III toys!
Evening #1: Introduction and Facility Tour
Everything started with checking in at the guard booth and getting a visitor’s badge that let’s everyone know in big letters that I need to be escorted everywhere around the premises…yes, even to the bathroom (they stand outside, don’t worry). Walking into the FBI building, you’re overwhelmed by the marble floors and fancy wood-paneled walls (maybe mahogany?). Dare I say “overboard” when it comes to the fancy-ness of the building. The building itself is huge and definitely has the feeling of being very secure and not cheap construction. Some of you may have been in a Federal building before and this wouldn’t be new to you, but this was my first time really and it was impressive. Nevermind the wondering about how much the place cost! The Special Agent in Charge welcomed us with a quick speech and did elude to the fact that is a very nice facility and likely the last of its kind for a long time given the current Federal budget issues. Suffice to say, it doesn’t look like much was spared when designing and furnishing this place. I could go on all day about the merits of such grandeur, but I don’t want to.
The class is about 25 people or so made up of all sorts of walks of life: liberal to conservative, black ,white, hispanic, muslim, christian, PhD’s to shovel pushers, and everything else under the sun. It is funny how most seem to be to one side of the spectrum with few at or near the middle. I’d like to think of myself as near the middle. There’s definitely the liberally-mindsetted folks and there are just as many right wing borderline nutjobs…I’m talking very likely to have a tinfoil hat folded up in their pocket! Everyone is there by selection though, some after two or three times of “applying.” Why do I call some of the folks nutjobs (conspiracy theorists may be a better word)? Stopping the Special Agent in Charge of all North Carolina FBI ops in the middle of his speech and asking him whether or not “do ya’ll use drones around here to monitor us?” I think qualifies you (or at least pre-qualifies you for admittance) to be in that category–and yes, this happened. For the most part though everyone is very interested to hear about and to see what these folks do.
The highlight of the first night was the tour of some of the building. We started off by seeing the photo lab. We walked in and you see a very large closet (more of a room than a closet) filled to the brim with all sorts of camera lenses and cameras…mainly all still cameras. By their own admission, they do very little video work. I’m talking easily $100’s of thousands in lenses…maybe $1 million or more. I was floored! In the middle of the room were two DSLR’s with GINORMOUS lenses attached. I want to say one was an 800mm lens? It was about 3 or 4 feet long and pushing 12-18″ in diameter at the end. They had some declassified photos on the wall to check out…some sort of graphic of crime scenes (read: dead people). The one guy that runs the lab seems to have a pretty cool job in that he gets to tag along with pretty much all aspects of the FBI…intelligence ops, investigations, crime scenes, SWAT, etc.
Next we checked out their command and control rooms (plural!). These are best described as CTU sets! I expected to see Jack Bauer himself sitting somewhere! One of the rooms was empty and not in use. It’s only for emergencies or special events (think: DNC). The other was their 24 hour staffed room. tons of computers in each room, a little command office, and a giant wall of TV’s and computer screens. The staffed room had the major news networks playing as well as tens maybe a hundred or more security camera screens (local site security). I asked the question of whether they were actually gathering intel from the news channels and the supervisor said “yes–think about it. The news networks work faster than we could imagine with people wanting to be the first to report. We keep the channels on not so much to gather intel, but to make sure we at least know what’s going on…more of a double-check.” I did think it was funny though to see Fox News cold shouldered when he said “we monitor all the big news agencies: CNN, HLN, MSNBC, and….ummmm…Fox national.” But when I looked at the wall, there were two screens playing CNN and the others were HLN and MSNBC! Not that it means a darn thing really…but there was that snubbing of Fox at the Federal level, right in front of me!
The tour ended with the best part: the gun vault! we walked into the bank vault-looking room and were greeted with a wall of class III toys: MP5’s chambered in 10mm, M4’s, Remington 870s cut down to 13″ barrels with night sights, Thompson sub-machine guns, and a slew of handguns laid out to observe. The Agent giving the presentation is the firearm instructor and was definitely a “gun guy.” I could tell he was into guns and wasn’t just a LEO who had to deal with them as tools of the trade as some (actually a lot) of LEO’s appear to be to me. When asked about the Tommy Guns he said they were heritage guns formerly used by the FBI but no longer in service. They still worked, but they use them only for demo’s. Since the FBI is not allowed to sell their firearms or even give them to museums, the only thing they can do is cut them in half and melt them down if they get rid of them…and it would be a crying shame to see that happen to those guns (his words). Someone asked how much they’re worth and the Agent replied with “a privately owned version may get $80k….these, since the FBI used them and put that history into them, maybe $100-$200k.” Everyone’s jaw just sort of dropped at that point. Not to brag but I already knew that and was more interested in fondling the M4 and MP5! I didn’t get a chance to talk to the guy since the “non-gun folks” were busy asking all sorts of questions that a typical newb to guns would ask. I look forward to talking to him in the future and maybe even picking up some pointers.
Standby for more weekly updates…