The Games Agents Play at the Fbi Academy Aim to Produce Grads Who Are Less Stuck-Up but More Savvy
06/18/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
The armed fugitive was trapped inside the two-story yellow house on Hogan's Alley, and the law had closed in around him. "This is the FBI!" barked agent Kevin R. Brock. "Come on out!" From vantage points on each side of the front door, Brock and fellow agent Diane Rivers drew their Smith & Wessons and watched. Finally the door swung slowly open. "Please, don't hurt me," whined the tall, blond man who emerged. Then, suddenly, he drew a gun and whirled, ready to fire. Without missing a beat, Rivers and Brock cut him down. A-plus for the two agents.
In fact, it was a shooting without bloodshed, a role-playing exercise at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. Hogan's Alley was a set. The guns emitted harmless laser beams, all the participants wore laser-sensitive vests, and the fugitive, whose vest twinkled and beeped to signify hits, was Jim McKenzie, head of the academy. Ten years ago, agents practiced by shooting at paper targets not at the top brass. But this is the new FBI, and it is training a new breed of agent. Says McKenzie, 41: "It's how the target behaves that controls the agents' reactions. We've gotten away from the concept that marksmanship is all you need to teach. We're into judgmental shooting." In this case, Brock and Rivers were quick enough to save their lives but disciplined enough not to fire prematurely.
The FBI has changed its methods dramatically in the last decade, beginning with the way it instructs its new agents. In the process, the Bureau has been lifting itself from the depths of disrepute to which it sank after the half-century reign of Director J. Edgar Hoover. Special Agent Edward Tully, a 22-year veteran and head of the academy's education department, recalls the sense of purity and infallibility that went with an agent's job years ago. "We were all tight ends from Iowa. We were gods," he says, "and we were in awe of working for Hoover." It wasn't until after Hoover's death, in 1972, that a Senate committee uncovered a long list of FBI sins: misuse of authority, civil rights abuses (see Lennon story, page 85) and criminal wrongdoing. Says Tully: "We lost our infallibility."
Today the academy's 15-week curriculum for new agents is so packed with classes in criminal-investigating techniques and role-playing exercises that, says McKenzie, "they don't have time to blow their hair dry." Law is still the most basic course, covering some 200 statutes and 60 federal rules of criminal procedure, but the FBI is also tuned in to behavioral science and human relations. The academy reading list includes such pop-psych standards as Games People Play and I'm O.K, You're O.K. There are classes in forensic science, white collar crime and holistic physical fitness (in which scorn is heaped on red meat and cigarettes).
But the most remarkable change is the academy's emphasis on the study of human behavior. For example, agents are taught how to deal with almost every conceivable ethnic group. They are instructed never to demean a Hispanic man in front of his wife and children, to keep eye contact with Apache Indians to a minimum as a sign of respect, and to keep three to four feet of space between themselves and most people of European descent because they may feel threatened by crowding. "We tell students to treat everyone as you would your own mother, with dignity," says Tully. "Since we became ordinary people, we've had to teach new agents to be careful to avoid the structured thinking that got us into trouble. There's a lot of difference between training gods and training men."
McKenzie, after 18 years as a special agent, was chosen in 1980 to head the 90-member faculty that puts recruits through their paces. "We spend a lot of time telling them what they can't do," McKenzie says. "We try to rattle them and show them their limits." Of the 10,000 would-be agents who applied last year, only 664 were admitted to the academy, a solar-heated facility on a streamlined 334-acre campus about 40 miles from Washington, D.C. Trainees, between 23 and 35 years old, must be in excellent shape and have college degrees; only about four percent flunk or drop out. A new agent costs the FBI nearly $42,000, and McKenzie says it's money well spent. "As society and crime become more complex, we've had to produce a more sophisticated agent," he says. Lawyers and accountants once dominated the ranks—the Bureau has always preferred work experience—but a recent class included a ski instructor, a home-economics teacher and a motel manager. The FBI ranks are otherwise integrated, with 547 women (admitted since 1972), 295 blacks, 300 Hispanics, 86 Asian Americans and 37 American Indians. And while some of Hoover's macho types who nabbed bank robbers and handled "black bag" jobs (burglaries to pilfer records) with equal aplomb remain on the 825-member force, even they return to the academy for updated courses.
Kevin Brock and Diane Rivers are typical of the people who join the new FBI. "I got interested because there seemed to be a real purpose to it," says Rivers, 31. A Florida native with a degree in advertising, she earned the nickname "Lady Di" because of her self-possessed charm; she also made the most improvement in physical-fitness scores in her class. "Nobody sugarcoats or cleans up the training," she says. "For me, the FBI pulls together a lot of skills I'm comfortable with: organizing, interviewing, collecting evidence." It also gives her a lot to talk about with her husband, Lou Bracksieck. He's an FBI agent too.
At 29, Brock is following in his father's footsteps. Yet the clean-cut Californian says that while majoring in political science at the University of Connecticut he never figured to wind up as an agent. "What surprised me is the incredible emphasis they place here on individual citizen's rights," says Brock. "If the FBI errs, it's on the side of limits, of not trampling on anyone's rights to privacy."
Brock's assessment of the new FBI is echoed even by Bureau critics like Minneapolis Police Chief Anthony Bouza. "It's been a remarkable turnaround," he says of the better working relations between the FBI and local PDs. Others think that much of the change is window dressing, but even they concede that the Bureau has at least added windows. Notes one former federal prosecutor, "They make more public mistakes, even at the academy, just because they've become more public."
McKenzie and other observers credit FBI Director William Webster, a former federal judge, for the change. "When Bill Webster took over in 1978, he said, 'I'm through thinking about the past. I want us to look to the future,' " McKenzie says. "The tone the judge has set has been really important." As director of the academy, McKenzie has also played a pivotal role. A savvy team player, he worked his way up from lowly clerk ("I was recruited by Jimmy Stewart," he jokes, referring to the star of the 1959 movie The FBI Story) to his current $6600-a-year post. In-between, he has foiled kidnappers ("Returning a kidnapped child unharmed, that's what this job is all about") and broken up crime rings, never once having to fire his weapon. "I was brought here to lend field credibility to the training," he says.
The shepherd of this new breed of G-men, however, retains the old FBI steeliness. A no-nonsense administrator, McKenzie doesn't hesitate to weed out those who exhibit the wrong stuff. "I have fired three people who demonstrated independence to a fault," he says. "Being an FBI agent is a 24-hour job. We take notes on any kind of abnormal behavior because it reflects on their judgment. Those who march to a different drummer won't make it."
Sitting in his spacious executive office, his gun in a briefcase instead of a holster, McKenzie, who is divorced and has three children, ages 12 to 18, confides an occasional longing to return to the field. Still, there are plenty of surprises at the academy. A few months ago a nondescript window washer was in and out of his office frequently. To McKenzie's chagrin, she turned out to be an agent-in-training and he was the unsuspecting target for her assignment in clandestine surveillance. She got an A.