With gun in hand, FBI shares how it trains agents for worst case scenario

CLEVELAND - I raised the gun. A large man with a knife approached me from the other end of the hallway, yelling.

I failed to exercise deadly force, and I was the victim in the firearms training simulation.

At the FBI Citizens’ Academy, I got a small taste of some of the training that the special agents must perfect.

A group of us were in the basement of the Cleveland FBI with the firearms training team. We were handed an inert gun, faced a large screen, and had to react to the scenario that played out.

The instructor described the bureau’s deadly force policy. Agents cannot use deadly force to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect; in other words, no shooting in the back. And if you’ve ever seen a movie where an agent shoots out the tires of a suspect’s speeding vehicle, that’s the only place you’ll see it.

Before opening fire, agents must issue a verbal warning, and there is no such thing as a warning shot.

Agents are also taught the importance of action over reaction: how to act before it’s too late and an innocent person’s life is lost.

Some of this is comparable to what the average police officer is taught, but there are differences. Due to budget issues, most police departments have their officers qualify twice a year with a firearm. In contrast, FBI agents get four times a year to qualify.

Furthermore, when the FBI makes an arrest, it is planned. They know who they are arresting, when and where, and that allows them the privilege of having lots of fellow agents on hand and often limits the need for deadly force. Most police officers do not know what scenario they are walking into and must make arrests on the spot, where anything can happen.

The FBI instructor also taught us to hit center mass; that’s the bulk of the body including the stomach and chest.

In fact, a couple women in the class with a few years on me, including a marketing executive and a social worker – who had never held a gun before – did not hesitate to blow away their suspects. In the simulation, that is.

Should the need for heavy artillery arise, the FBI is ready. I was given the privilege of walking into the Cleveland division’s gun vault.

It is as it sounds. A large steel door opens to reveal a vault packed with guns. Some are antiques; we saw the Thompson submachine guns that the original agents first used. You’d probably recognize them as the Tommy guns from “Dick Tracy.”

An FBI SWAT member explained that the bureau has to keep up with the threat on the streets. At some point, criminals started wearing Kevlar bulletproof vests. Where do they get them? The Internet, of course. They’re pretty affordable, actually.

The SWAT member explained said it’s pretty disheartening not to be able to eliminate a threat, when they’ve had to shoot an armed suspect who won’t go down.

For that reason, the FBI has had to adopt supersonic weapons. That means certain weapons fire at such a high speed that a Kevlar vest will not stop the bullet.

It’s OK to admit: firearms training and evidence gathering are pretty cool. In fact, I also got to see what the FBI’s Evidence Response Team does.

The agents who work on the ERT have day jobs in the FBI. Then their pager goes off and they have to suit up and head off to a crime scene to gather evidence.

And gathering evidence is their job. They simply gather it and then send it off to labs. They have two weeks of training to learn how to do that without compromising the integrity of the evidence or breaking the chain of command.

They have lots of toys and gadgets to collect evidence. They can make plaster casts of footprints – even in the snow – that turn out remarkably well. But, unlike in the movies, the casts don’t immediately reveal the suspect weighed 180 pounds and limped on his right leg.

The ERT lifts fingerprints with powder and tape still, but they can also use gel, and they use basic vacuums to collect hair and fibers. The only difference on the vacuum is the collection cup at the end of the hose, which is shipped off to the lab.

The agents also use those special lights to spot evidence. You’ve probably seen something like it on “CSI” or “Bones.” Except a room must be pitch black so the light will make semen, saliva and sweat glow – but not blood. This is a misnomer those shows rely on every week. Sorry to take the steam out of your sails, Hollywood.

Another thing Hollywood does not highlight about the bureau is the priority it places on our freedoms, especially our civil rights. Protecting them is high on the FBI’s top 10 list of priorities.

One agent cited Benjamin Franklin: “Keeping government honest and hence our freedoms intact requires eternal vigilance."

The bottom line is that the government cannot protect our civil rights if it is compromised.

Supervisory Special Agent John Frain said corruption survives if it becomes systemic. Corruption can come from monopoly of power, weak supervision, a lack of transparency and accountability, and inadequate checks and balances.

The FBI regularly investigates civil rights violations that include hate crimes and human trafficking, as well as stopping someone from walking into a health clinic and something called color of law.

Color of law is when a government employee deprives a citizen of civil rights.

One special agent said the Cleveland FBI is currently investigating the recent arrest of a wrong-way driver. The arrest was caught on video by a Cleveland police helicopter, and the video appears to show an officer possibly kicking the suspect after he had been restrained. The suspect was handcuffed and lying on the ground.

Sometimes the use of force is necessary with restrained suspects; they can still be kicking and violent; but sometimes it is unnecessary and that violates a civil right.

“As law enforcement officers, we’re held to a higher standard – and we should be – because we have the ability to take away people’s freedom,” the agent said.

Frain said it is not a comfortable scenario to investigate other law enforcement officers, but he added that the Cleveland FBI’s leadership has built a strong relationship with Cleveland Police because they know it’s important to work together in the public interest.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan said the government has five statutes to prosecute civil rights. When it comes to hate crimes, the statute many of us are familiar with involves Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr.

Shepard was the 21-year-old Wyoming man who was murdered in 1998 because he was homosexual. Byrd was a black man who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck by three men in Texas in 1998.

Due to this law, the government can prosecute people who commit a hate crime, if they act based on the perception of the victim’s characteristic. That means, if the perpetrator simply perceives his target as gay or a different race, even if the target isn’t, the crime is a hate crime and prosecutable as such.

Northeast Ohioans may remember a case from a couple years ago. A Cleveland man of Jordanian descent returned home to find a toy camel hung with a noose on his front door.

The Cleveland FBI took the case. One man ended up pleading guilty and two women remain under investigation.

One person in the Citizens’ Academy asked if that was almost too trivial of a case for the Cleveland FBI to pick up.

Special Agent in Charge of the Cleveland FBI Stephen Anthony said some cases may seem small, but if the FBI does not make it clear it is there to protect all civil rights, it is not doing its job.

“It’s not a question,” he said.

And that’s the other thing that Hollywood has wrong about the FBI. Far too often, many of us have the perception that the FBI is intimidating, looking into us instead of looking out for us. Agents are shown as jaded or elitist.

The truth could not be further from the perception.

In the time I was embedded with the Cleveland FBI, there was another part I got to see, beyond the gun vault or the firearms training simulator.

I got to see who the people are who dedicate their lives to protect our freedoms and protect us from threats on a daily basis.

Sorry, Hollywood, but agents don’t put their own ego before their duties.

Anthony told the members of the Citizens’ Academy that it was a privilege for them to spend the past several weeks with such a mix of community leaders and experts in their field. All I can say is, the feeling was mutual.

The most eye-opening aspect I learned about the FBI is that the people who work for the agency are friendly, courteous, unassuming, funny, self-sacrificing, and frankly the type of person you’d want for your neighbor.

Would you rather take your child to gymnastics or play tennis with them, than think about the threat of terrorism?

The typical FBI employee isn’t much different. They’d rather you to go about enjoying your life than ever have to worry about those things, too.

Then, when their work day is over, they’ll be taking their kids to gymnastics or tennis practice.

[Look for updates about the FBI Citizens' Academy from Colin McDermott over the next several months.]

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