News & Views

10 Clichés and Misconceptions about the FBI

This is an an excerpt of an original article. For the full post or podcast episode, click here.

On my podcast — FBI Retired Case File Review — I've conducted more than 50 interviews with my former FBI colleagues about the high-profiled cases they worked while on the job. In almost every interview, one of us comments about some aspect of the case or an investigative method that has been portrayed in books, TV and movies as a cliché or inaccuracy. With the recent major hit on the FBI’s reputation because of issues related to the election, a transparent look at the real FBI is needed more than ever, don’t you think?

1. There Are Teams of FBI Profilers Hunting Serial Killers. Currently, there are approximately 13,500 FBI agents, and I can assure you that 99.9% of them are not hunting serial killers. There is a team of profilers in the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico. But at any given time, there are only 15 to 20 full-time special agent profilers assigned to the BAU, and they work on developing criminal profiles for people accused of all of kinds of violations. The primary goal of criminal investigative analysis is to examine the behavioral information submitted to the unit and provide advice to the requesting agency, rather than actual investigative process.

2. The FBI Doesn't Play Well with Others. How many books have you read where a local detective or sheriff is working on a case and the FBI shows up and is rude and condescending? That storyline has been portrayed for so long that it’s self-perpetuating. In real life, FBI agents meeting local law enforcement for the first time often have to deal with those stereotypes and the resulting resentment and suspicion. Agents respect and value the contributions other agencies bring to the table and strive to maintain collaborative relationships with all law enforcement partners.

3. There is One Central Database. Believe me, it is impossible to type in a person’s name into a database and have everything ever known about that person pop up a few minutes later. The National Computer Information Center is an electronic clearinghouse of crime data, but its records are only as up-to-date as the numerous agencies responsible for making submissions. An endless number of databases must be searched to get a somewhat full and complete profile on an individual. It could take an analyst days if not weeks to gather a comprehensive file on a subject.

4. FBI Agents Work for Federal Prosecutors. The FBI is its own entity. In some, local municipalities, detectives are assigned to the district attorney’s office and work under the direction of an assistant DA. But in the federal system, the FBI investigates and the United States Attorney’s Office prosecutes. Now, before an agent goes too far into a complicated matter, he may consult the USAO for an opinion on the prosecutorial merit of a case.

5. All FBI Agents Work on Task Forces. To the contrary, for most violations, agents work alone. They’ll team up with a squad mate for corroboration or safety concerns; however, the FBI requires agents to assume an almost entrepreneurial ownership of their cases. Agents must figure out the manpower and resources needed, and there’s no one standing over them checking on their daily progress. Every 90 days the squad supervisor reviews the agents’ case files, looking for documentation that they are pulling their weight.

6. FBI Senior Executives Are Out in the Field. FBI management does not go out in the field to participate in searches or arrests. The last place the Director of the FBI, an ADIC (assistant director in charge), a SAC (special agent in charge), or an assistant special agent in charge (ASAC) wants to be is in the field. What if something goes wrong? The name of the game in moving up the ladder in the FBI is plausible deniability.

7. Agents Use Intimidation and Threats during Interrogations. The appropriate FBI term is "interview," not "interrogation," and agents prefer to rely on their charm and skills of persuasion, not force, to convince subjects and witnesses to cooperate. In most instances, adversarial confrontations are avoided, because in addition to conducting interviews, agents are always looking to develop informants.

8. FBI Agents Are Perfect and Never Get in Trouble. This one is kind of true. For the most part, we leave bad behavior to the Secret Service (just joking). Unfortunately, a few FBI agents have made some serious mistakes and boneheaded transgressions. But, there is a saying in the FBI – “Don’t embarrass the Bureau” and the core belief that behavior of each special agent is a direct reflection of the agency. It’s expected that everything an FBI agent says and does will project a positive image and mirror the viewpoint of the “front office.”

9. Agents Have No Sense of Humor. FBI agents are assigned to squads based on related violations. Because of the often-dangerous mission and the long hours, squad members develop close personal relationships. Practical jokes are pulled on a frequent basis. A common prank is when an agent leaves his credentials out on his desk and his official ID photo is covered with a photo of, say, Mickey Mouse or Homer Simpson. FBI agents take their jobs seriously, but not necessarily themselves.

10. All FBI Agents Are White Males. While recent books, TV shows, and movies portray the FBI as a highly diverse organization, approximately 70 percent of special agents are white males. However, the FBI agents workforce does include women (20%), minorities (17%), and individuals of different religions and sexual orientations. All law enforcement agencies should reflect the population they serve, and the FBI is actively recruiting more minorities to apply. Black women account for only 1 percent of the special agent workforce, so I’m always in recruitment mode. If you or someone you know meets the qualifications, please consider applying for the Special Agent position.

—Jerri Williams

Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, attempts to relive her glory days by writing crime fiction and hosting FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast available for subscription on iTunes and Stitcher. Her debut novel—Pay to Playabout a female agent investigating corruption in the Philadelphia strip club industry is available now.

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