I’m excited to be celebrating my 50th episode of FBI Retired Case File Review this week, along with the success of my crime novel Pay To Play. While producing and hosting my true crime – crime fiction podcast over the last year, I’ve conducted interviews with my retired FBI colleagues about the high-profile cases they worked while on the job. And during almost every interview one of us comments about some aspect of the case or an investigative method that had been portrayed about the FBI in books, TV, and movies as a cliché or inaccurately. I noted at least 10 FBI clichés and misconceptions in books, TV, and movies that were repeatedly discussed. Just as some attorneys don’t read or watch legal dramas, and some doctors avoid medical shows and novels, for this special episode I’m joined by retired agent Bobby Chacon, a technical advisor for the TV show Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders for a lively discussion about why some FBI agents might not be reading that bestselling book series or watching that popular show depicting the FBI (In episode 8, I interviewed Bobby about working Jamaican drug gang cases and leading the FBI dive team).
Most people will never meet an FBI agent. The only connections they have with the FBI are the ones they make from learning about the FBI in books, TV, and movies, along with, of course, the news.
So, what if fictional portrayals of FBI agents are clichés or inaccurate? Does it really matter?
Yes. I believe portrayals of the FBI in books, TV, and movies do matter. If fictional FBI agent characters are regulated to investigating only one or two types of violation or if they are written in negative and unflattering ways, when real FBI agents call someone on the phone or show up at a business or home to investigate actual cases, the response or cooperation they receive will no doubt be influenced by that last book that person read or TV show they watched about the FBI.
FBI agents and FBI cases are often used as inspiration for writing fascinating thrillers and crime stories.
As a matter of fact, the FBI currently has jurisdiction over violations of more than 200 categories of federal law.
So, answer me this, why are there so many novels—albeit well-written, entertaining, books—about FBI agents hunting down serial killers?
10 FBI clichés and misconceptions
#1 FBI profilers chase serial killers down dark alleys to stop them before they kill their next victim. Although serial killings are relatively rare, books, movies, and TV shows can give the false impression that they are roaming throughout the country. This is probably the most prevalent cliché. I blame the public’s fascination with serial killers and FBI profilers on bestselling author Thomas Harris, along with Jody Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and Scott Glen. Silence of the Lambs is unquestionably one of the best novels and the best movie about the FBI and serial killers. But the Silence of the Lambs is a blessing and a curse. I worked as a special agent for 26 years, and I know of only one or two FBI agents who were actually assigned cases involving a serial killer. Yes, 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 conduct comprehensive interviews with violent criminals and their victims in order to develop criminal profiles for those accused of horrific acts. The primary goal of profilers and criminal investigative analysis is to examine the behavioral information submitted to the unit and provide advice to the requesting agency, rather than become involved in the actual investigative process. Currently, there are approximately 13,500 FBI agents, and I can assure you that 99.9 percent of them are not hunting serial killers, terrorists maybe, but not serial killers.
#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 must deal with those stereotypes and the resulting resentment and suspicion before they can deal with the investigative situation at hand, because, based on books and films, people expect the FBI to come in and try to take over an investigation. FBI agents respect and value the contributions other agencies bring to the table and strive to maintain collaborative relationships with all law enforcement partners. FBI Field Offices support multiple Task Forces where local, state, and federal investigators work side by side.
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#3 There is one central database. Wouldn’t it be convenient if that were true? Believe me; it is impossible to type in a person’s name into a database and have everything ever known about that person pop out a few minutes later. The National Computer Information Center NCIC is an electronic clearinghouse of crime data, but its records are only as up-to-date as the numerous agencies responsible for making submissions. There is an endless number of databases that must be searched to get a complete profile of an individual. Records are stored in local, state and federal computer files. Court districts maintain their own records. The military has separate record-keeping systems. Medical and mental health records are not maintained at one resource. It could reasonably 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. There’s no need to continue to gather information if there no way a jury would convict, but agents don’t work “for” prosecutors (in the federal system – Assistant United States Attorneys or AUSAs). Another misconception is that prosecutors go out in the field with agents to participate in investigations, searches, and arrests. With few exceptions, that doesn’t happen. The team, agents and prosecutors, will participate in scheduled interviews together, especially proffers and witness preparations. But for the most part, FBI agents conduct the initial interviews and record their notes in FD-302 reports of interview, which are provided to the AUSA.
#5 All FBI agents work on teams and task forces. To the contrary, depending on the violation, many agents work alone. They may partner with a squadmate for corroboration and/or safety concerns. However, they assume an almost entrepreneurial ownership of their investigations and are responsible for figuring out what they need to do and what tools they need to use to gather evidence to solve their cases. As with running a business, manpower and resource needs must be determined. 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. In the end, the statistics report the facts—how many interviews, searches, arrests, indictments, trials, convictions have been logged in since the last file review. It’s a competitive environment. No one wants to be known as an empty suit.
#6 FBI Senior Executives are out in the field. Seldom are the Director of the FBI, an Assistant Director (ADIC) or the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of a Field Office on-scene commanders at crime scenes, searches and arrests. Actually, it’s the last place senior management wants to be. What if something goes terribly wrong? The name of the game in moving up the ladder in the FBI is plausible deniability. Agents often joke with each other, “when upper management arrives, an agent has lost all control of his or her case.”
#7 Agents use intimidation and threats during an interrogation. The appropriate FBI term is an interview, not an interrogation. Agents 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. Every field agent is required and evaluated on his or her participation in the collection of human intelligence (HUMINT), and everyone they speak with is considered a potential candidate. Be empathetic and respectful to the subject you interview today, and he may become your informant or cooperating witness tomorrow.
#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 agents have made serious transgressions from the FBI’s core values. However, there is a saying in the FBI, “Don’t embarrass the Bureau,” and the belief that agents will strive to uphold the proud reputation of the FBI established during 110 years of service. It’s expected that everything an FBI agent says and does will project a positive image and mirror the viewpoint of the “front office.” That’s because agents take that whole Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity stuff very seriously. Translated to real life situations those words connote loyalty, confidence, and well. . . integrity. And by the way, in the FBI internal affairs is called OPR, the Office of Professional Responsibility.
#9 Agents have no sense of humor. FBI agents are assigned to squads based on related violations. Because of the long hours worked together, each squad is like a large dysfunctional family and 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. Unfortunately, he won’t know his creds have been tampered with until the next time he takes them out to display to someone. FBI agents take their job seriously, but not necessarily themselves.
#10 Most FBI agents are white males. Recent books, TV shows, and movies portray the FBI as a highly diverse organization, but the old image is still accurate. Approximately 70 percent of special agents are white males. However, agents are not entirely the cookie cutter models from central casting portrayed in years past; the FBI agent workforce also includes 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 women and 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.
There are, of course, other issues regarding the portrayal of the FBI in books, TV shows and movies and certainly more than 10 FBI clichés and misconceptions. More myths were addressed in a Business Insider’s article by Aine Cain titled, 11 things Hollywood gets wrong about being an FBI agent — and one thing it gets right and a blog post I wrote called, AN OPEN LETTER TO THE WRITERS, PRODUCERS AND FANS OF TV SHOW QUANTICO.
The following is a link to an FBI Website post about the ways the Bureau works with writers to get it things right about the FBI in books, TV, and movies: How can screenwriters, authors, and producers seeking authenticity work with the FBI?
You can also keep listening to FBI Retired Case File Review. The episodes provide listeners the opportunity to get behind-the-scenes insights into what it’s really like to be an agent. I affectionately label the podcast as the diet or light version of true crime. For the most part, FBI cases have less blood and gore, but lots of intrigue and suspense. With the recent major hit on the FBI’s reputation because of issues related to the election, this type of transparent look at the FBI is needed more than ever, don’t you think?
I would be disingenuous if I didn’t add that I initially developed my podcast to distinguish my work and establish my authority and expertise in the crime fiction field. The success of FBI Retired Case File Review has allowed me to reach potential readers, and build a community of supportive fans.
As part of the special 50th episode, I also mentioned my debut crime novel, PAY TO PLAY, about a female FBI agent investigating corruption in the Philadelphia strip club industry. It’s a raw and racy police procedural inspired by actual FBI cases, but with the boring parts left out. I must confess that I have my main characters doing things that would get real FBI agents in some serious trouble.
Thank you for hanging out with me every week for the past twelve months. I’ll do another special 10 FBI clichés and misconceptions episode when we reach episode 100!
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 Apple Podcast/iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other popular podcast apps. Her novels—Pay To Play and Greedy Givers—inspired by actual true crime FBI cases and featuring temptation, corruption, and redemption, are available at amazon.com.