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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.

My Favorite Crime Movie: Body Heat

This is the first in our member-written series: My Favorite Crime Movie.

I graduated from the University of Florida law school at the end of 1977 and stayed in Gainesville for almost another year, trying to figure out what to do – a process I've since learned may pause but never quite ends. North Central Florida was rough and rural, but charmingly so for someone with northern sensibilities. It wasn’t just the palm trees. There were blackwater rivers, live oaks hung with Spanish moss, and sluggish ponds where gators lazed with only their eyes breaking the surface.

When Body Heat was released in 1981, I was three years back in New York and working as an editor for a legal publishing company. My Florida memories had faded among life decisions, career concerns, and sputtering attempts at writing fiction. Body Heat revived them. I was a runner in law school, and when Ned Racine (William Hurt) jogged on the docks I could feel the searing heat of the Florida sun through his sweat-heavy FSU tee shirt. When Peter Lowenstein (Ted Danson) lifted his customary two glasses of iced tea off the coffee shop counter, I could taste that chilled sweetness at the back of my throat. And when Ned described his law practice as allowing him to send his shirts out and eat in a nice restaurant once a month if he didn't order an appetizer, I remembered several classmates who struggled to build law practices in the sawgrass and palmetto.

But the movie did more than just conjure up memories. It told a great story. You see Ned embark on an affair with the married Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), who stands to inherit a fortune if her husband had the common decency to die. Can Ned trust her? Should he trust her? You suspect not, but you cannot say why other than the fact that these types of affairs, and the murder plots they spawn, never turn out well.

Ultimately, the framing of Ned Racine is less surprising than the reason Matty Walker picked him as her mark. She doesn’t settle on him because he’s horny or because he’s barely scraping by in his backwater law practice. She targets him because his sloppy lawyering once landed him in a serious malpractice suit involving the bane of all law students: the Rule Against Perpetuities. With memories of both the Florida and New York bar exams still fresh in my mind, this was a harrowing thought.

Oh, yes. The clown.

As part of the murder plot, Ned travels to South Florida to establish an alibi. As he stands on a street corner, a convertible approaches, driven by a clown. If the clown simply passed in the background of the frame, it would have been an obvious symbol that Ned is a fool. But the scene subtly shifts into Ned's perspective, and the camera becomes Ned’s eyes, following the clown as he passes. We sense that he notices the clown because he already suspects, subconsciously, that he is being played for a fool.

You probably have had the experience of seeing something that appears to be an omen. It’s a subjective experience — you have something important on your mind and you interpret some random sight in terms of that thing. Life is messy, but art shouldn’t be, which makes it difficult to transpose that sense of foreboding onto the page or the screen without it seeming trite or contrived.

The clown scene in Body Heat nails it.

—Kevin Egan

Kevin Egan is the author of eight novels, including his latest, A Shattered Circle, and Midnight, a Kirkus Best Book of 2013. He works in the iconic New York County Courthouse, which serves as the setting and inspiration for most of his recent fiction. Several of his courthouse mystery stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. His short fiction also has been published in Thuglit, Rosebud, and the Westchester Review.

Mug Shot: Gary Earl Ross

garyrossPlaywright, novelist, public radio essayist, and popular culture scholar Gary Earl Ross is a professor emeritus at the University of Buffalo. His work includes the award-winning plays Matter of Intent and The Guns of Christmas and the novel Blackbird Rising. His 1925 courtroom drama The Mark of Cain will be onstage this season at Subversive Theatre's Manny Fried Playhouse in Buffalo and his first Gideon Rimes mystery, Nickel City Blues, will be published in 2017. He joined the MWA in 2006.

What made you decide to be an author?
When I was ten — on one of our regular trips to the public library — I fell in love with Ray Bradbury's prose and decided to become a writer. My parents helped immeasurably. My mother, who'd always read to us, passed on her books without trying to censor my reading (and she read a little of everything). My father (the first African American man in the Navy to work in an office because he could type 100 words a minute) gave me his old typewriter. Also, I read almost everything I could get my hands on, from Agatha Christie to James Baldwin to comic books. From the age of 18 on, I published short stories in a variety of venues but didn't finish my first novel (historical) until I was in my forties. A collapsed book deal sent me toward writing plays. My second play, Matter of Intent, won the Edgar in 2006, and as I moved into the last third of my university professorship, almost all my writing (plays, stories, and finally another novel) was in the field of mystery.

Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
I do both. Sometimes a story springs full-blown into my head and almost writes itself. Other stories require a lot of planning, outlining, time, and effort. Some horses can't wait to run while others need spurs to canter.

What non-crime books do you enjoy reading?
I read history and science fiction, as well as "literary" novels and books on film.

How do you handle rejection or bad reviews?
I sigh, shrug, go for a walk, eat a candy bar, and sit down to write. I always feel better the next day.

What advice would you give to beginning writers?
Go for broke. I married early and had a family and pursued a safe career in higher ed (safe once I got tenure). I loved teaching but was never fully satisfied by the scholarly side of things, which is why I continued to write fiction. I longed to get up in the morning and just write stories. I have wondered what my life as a writer would have been like if I had gone for broke early and lived in a hovel as I developed my craft. My children and grandchildren are what make me say I can't regret my choices, but as soon as I could, I retired from university life. In the two years since I've retired, I've published four short stories, written two plays (one onstage this spring), directed three plays (two my own), and completed a novel. Now I get up every morning and write. I've never been happier.

About The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

This is the second in our member-written series: My Favorite Golden Age Mystery.

Like many good stories, Dame Agatha Christie's novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd developed from an idea tossed off playfully by two of her friends. The novel was published in 1926, early in her career, and was merely the third time Hercule Poirot, her Belgian private investigator, had been called upon to use his little grey cells. (To me that's a curiosity, because in this story he’d already retired to the country.)

The story's startling ending gained for her novel inclusion into Howard Haycraft's list of important and/or groundbreaking detective stories (from Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story).

In the rare case that the reader has not read this novel, I won't reveal the ending. But I advise writers to read the book twice, first without knowledge, and another time while knowing its secret. The pacing may feel slow compared to today's need for speed, but you'll find Ms. Christie's word choices were immaculately spare. Short story writers know and follow this habit of making each word able to work hard, because of low word count requirements. In this novel, she crafted her story with word choices that could fairly be read two ways, with the character both innocent, and then revealed as guilty. She succeeds masterfully.

Four years later, Ms. Christie and other famed crime-writers formed The Detection Club, which exists today. It served as a model and inspiration for Mystery Writers of America. The club members swore an oath to adhere to a code of ethics in their writing to grant the reader a fair-play chance to guess who did it before the end. Whether The Murder of Roger Ackroyd incited the formation of the fair-play oath is unknown, but the furor over her use of that particular literary device continues today.

Fast forward to a nation riveted to their black-and-white television screens wide-eyed with anticipation as Alfred Hitchcock unfolds yet another story with a surprise ending. The surprise was inevitable, yet he still fooled many of his audience. The Twilight Zone, presented by Rod Serling, again played with viewers’ expectations, mixing oddities with surprise. As Dame Agatha well knew, readers love surprises. The unexpected sells.

What writer has not spent valuable time twisting and weighing his words in a story? No matter the format: feature film to short story to seven volumes of an epic, the aim is to make the story good! Readers are eager to suspend their disbelief. Every word in a story should be crafted to achieve that suspension of disbelief. Readers love the tension, and by extension: twists. The twist at the end that fools us. Or not, which makes us feel clever. Whatever creates a good story . . . works!

Ms. Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd lives still in the minds of this reader . . . because of the twist!

Angela Zeman

Angela Zeman's writing spans cozy to suspense. She's the author of The Witch and the Borscht Pearland Tales of the Witch, both featuring Mrs. Risk. Her stories can be found in several anthologies. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine featured “The First Tale of Roxanne” on their cover, the first in a new series.

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