Exclusive tour of FBI Training Academy in Quantico dispels myths, reveals how special agents train

QUANTICO, Va. - I have to admit, I could not figure out how to write about the FBI Training Academy in Quantico without stating upfront that it was just a cool place to see.

I also have to point out that serious work goes on there.

While it was fascinating for a visitor like me to see, it’s quite a different story for the new Special Agents who train there. One FBI Special Agent, who graduated from the academy a while back, told me that she does not plan to return there.

I soon understood what she meant. Rigorous training takes place at the FBI Training Academy. And it should be rigorous. The Bureau meticulously screens thousands of applicants, carefully selects hundreds to train, and invests in them the know-how to protect the United States while upholding its laws. That is quite a demanding and solemn process.

Nevertheless, I was at Quantico! After all, Jodie Foster walked these halls.

I’m not making light of the exceptional work the Training Academy does, but my guide himself regularly pointed out all the places where scenes from “The Silence of the Lambs” were shot.

I arrived at Quantico with my fellow members of the FBI Citizens’ Academy of Cleveland and Tampa. The FBI Training Academy is located in a large U.S. Marine Corps base, itself located in Quantico, Va.

Once I stepped foot into the Training Academy, I not only became aware of the thousands of Special Agents who trained in these halls, but where the FBI came from.

A plaque on the wall bore the image of J. Edgar Hoover. It stated, “The father of modern law enforcement, whose insight made this academy possible.” That legacy lives on in every agent who walks this earth.

I walked past several friendly agents in training into the Forensic Science Research and Training Center. It featured a room lined with waist-height wooden tables. The far wall reads “Safety Wall.” Behind it, I could hear popping sounds. Gunfire. Recruits were practicing.

I was in the gun cleaning room. If you have seen “The Silence of the Lambs,” you would recognize it as the room at the beginning of the film where the recruits are cleaning their guns. I turned my head and looked out the doorway into the hall. Yep, there it was.

“That’s the elevator Jodie Foster goes down at the start of the movie,” the guide said.

I only bring up the 1991 film because it is a pretty decent reference point for people who have not seen Quantico in person. Forgive me if I regularly reference Foster along with the training for FBI Special Agents. Winning an Oscar does not hold a candle to defending the U.S. and its laws.

In fact, we were all quickly brought back to reality. In the courtyard stands a memorial to the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001. It features debris from United Flight #93, the Pentagon, and the World Trade Center. It is dedicated to the people who perished in the struggle to save others that day.

While walking through the building, I passed another door. It read Behavioral Science Unit. This was where the terms “serial killer” and “profiling” were born and introduced to the law enforcement community.

In popular culture, it also serves as the inspiration for countless books, TV shows, and movies, particularly the aforementioned.

I did not have the clearance to see the BSU, but I can tell you, for those who go into the basement to see it, they are greeted by a life-size statue of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In fact, if you press a button, he will tell you he likes fava beans and a nice Chianti. Don’t ever say the FBI doesn’t have a sense of humor.

But the Lecter statue also serves to remind agents that there are very real people who prey upon others and the Bureau must strive to do its best to identify and apprehend them.

Behavioral science is an umbrella term for all disciplines studying human behavior, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and cognitive sciences. Applying them brings immeasurable value to law enforcement and national security.

Steven Conlon is the Criminal Investigations Instructor for the BSU. He explained that behavioral science helps investigators figure out who the criminal is based on how the crime was committed. The science can be especially helpful if there is a lack of physical evidence.

Behavioral science has been used in several of the FBI’s most famous cases, including the D.C. Sniper, the Columbine shootings, John Wayne Gacy, Bernie Madoff, and James Holmes of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting.

Conlon showed us photographs from crime scenes for a brief amount of time, then asked us about our observations. Unsurprisingly, almost everyone noticed something different.

Conlon explained that much of behavioral science investigations comes down to perception. Looking at the same thing in different ways can reveal hidden insight. To know what to look for that could help solve a case is what the BSU specializes in.

But the Bureau hones more than the mind of Special Agents. They also face rigorous physical training.

One of the most impressive parts of the Training Academy are the grounds where it trains its Hostage Rescue Team. It prepares Special Agents to make quick judgments about when and when not to use their weapon in various circumstances and settings.

I cannot go into detail about what the Hostage Rescue Team involves, but I can tell you its training features a variety of state-of-the-art courses that could prepare a Special Agent for almost any occasion. It was a fascinating privilege to see.

Then something surreal happened. While walking through the Training Academy, it was as if I suddenly stumbled into a Norman Rockwell town.

Nestled in the Training Academy are a few city blocks known as Hogan’s Alley. It is complete with a bank, pharmacy, post office, hotel, pool hall, laundromat, radio station, theater, and park.

On an average day, you might see a bank robber or a terrorist walking the streets.

But no one lives here. Hogan’s Alley is a mock city. The buildings are merely facades. It serves as a realistic training ground for FBI and DEA agents.

In fact, while we were standing in front of the apartment building, gunshots suddenly rang out. Apparently, a raid drill was going on while we were walking the streets.

It’s funny how quickly you get used to the sound of gunfire. Most Citizens’ Academy members didn’t even flinch. I merely glanced over at the building. One man, however, ducked down and ran a few feet away from it. Either way, only blank cartridges are used in Hogan’s Alley.

Needless to say, we all posed for a bunch of pictures there.

Here’s a fun fact about Quantico: All evidence that the FBI collects around the world gets analyzed there. Its state-of-the-art lab tests everything.

The Lab is an impressive building. It is also hard to describe. It is literally two separate buildings in one. One half is the actual laboratory, the other are its offices.

What might help give you an idea just how seriously the Bureau treats its evidence would be the Lab’s air ventilation system. The Lab may be one building, but each half has its own separate ventilation system. That system keeps any air pollutants from the office side contaminating evidence on the laboratory side. The two sides are sealed from each other.

A young woman who works as a Physical Scientist and Forensic Examiner for the Lab walked us through the work done there, as well as her own background.

“I used to work in a drug lab,” she said. “Not making drugs, testing them,” she clarified, which got a laugh from the Citizens’ Academy members.

The Lab tests chemical evidence, like drugs and paints; trace evidence, which can include hair, fibers, and glass; and DNA evidence, which can be found in places you probably cannot imagine.

The scientist noted that we were sitting in chairs and explained that the chair will leave something on us and we will leave something on the chairs. That is called Locard’s Exchange Principle.

“We’re going to swab the chairs, put all your info in the files we have on you.” More laughs. Another joke. I think.

One of the databases the Lab uses is CODIS: the Combined DNA Indexing System. It not only stores DNA information of convicted offenders, but normal citizens can utilize it as well.

For instance, imagine a relative of yours disappears. You can provide your DNA to CODIS. In the event that human remains are found, its DNA will be submitted to CODIS, which could then find the genetic match to you, identifying the remains and helping solve what happened to that person.

Could the DNA you submit to CODIS be used against you, if you committed and got away with a crime? No. The scientist told us that, people who provide their DNA on good will do not get cross-referenced against unsolved crimes.

The Lab has a variety of departments. If you can picture a room full of people slowly and methodically piecing together piles of shredded documents, it exists.

“They get paid to do it, so they are very good at it,” the young lady said.

I can only begin to imagine what the Lab is capable of, merely getting a taste of how it operates and what it accomplishes, considering the never-ending supply of evidence that it gets.

“We always wonder if the FedEx guy who delivers evidence knows he’s bringing us hands,” the scientist mused. It really makes you think.

Back in the main building of the Training Academy, we passed through another room you might recognize. It is the same room that Jodie Foster celebrated her graduation as FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling by eating cake, moments before that infamous phone call with Dr. Lecter.

This time that room was filled with a real class. But they were not new FBI agents. The new class of Drug Enforcement Administration agents had just graduated after months of training.

After only getting a sneak peek at the training that goes on at Quantico, I can only begin to imagine how those fresh agents feel about their new responsibilities.

But they are not alone in their responsibility to the United States.

“We have a global vision,” said Steven Krueger, Section Chief of Instruction at the FBI Training Academy.

In working to protection national security, Krueger explained how the Bureau lacks in personnel so it has started to invest in the public more.

“Citizens’ Academy, you are now our partners,” he said. “You are a partner in our responsibility. You should feel a partnership in our mission. You own some of that responsibility now.”

But it is not just Citizens’ Academy members who share in that responsibility. The FBI started the Citizens’ Academy to help demystify the work that the Bureau does and help make the public aware that the agency is there to help them.

Anyone reading this should know that you too can help your country. The FBI relies on responsible citizens to accomplish the fine work it does. Those who are aware of health care fraud, white collar crime, human trafficking victims, or a threat to national security, should come forward. Pick up the phone and call the FBI. It gets important tips from concerned citizens every day.

“We’re doing this 24/7, and you’re on the same team now,” Krueger said. “And we cannot fail.”

As I walked out of the FBI Training Academy, I noted a mural that listed the definitions of fidelity, bravery and integrity. I was reminded of the plaque of J. Edgar Hoover, the 9/11 memorial, the graduating class of new agents.

Fidelity. Bravery. Integrity.

It may not be what the letters of the FBI stands for, but it is what the FBI stands for.

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