It’s a hot afternoon in August, and the last of the trainees steps off a coach bus parked outside a dormitory at the FBI Academy.
One by one, young men and women from all walks of life make their way toward the entrance with luggage in tow.
A sense of nervous excitement can be felt as supervisors, counselors, and others meet each trainee inside the lobby.
They shuffle from station to station and gather paperwork, equipment, class schedules, and dorm assignments. At one of the stops, trainees receive standard-issue polo shirts, khaki pants, and workout gear.
This diverse band of trainees is converging on Quantico from across the country with one goal in mind: to complete the Basic Field Training Course and become special agents of the FBI.
(The first weeks of training at the FBI Academy can be both exciting and nerve wracking. For many new trainees, the arrival at Quantico is a significant step in a lifelong journey to becoming a special agent. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)
The training will be taxing on many levels—academically, physically, and psychologically—and success is far from guaranteed.
But through the close bonds inevitably formed by fellow classmates and support from the Academy’s training staff, new agents will endure the challenges that lie ahead.
Over the span of five months, trainees will learn the fundamentals of the special agent tradecraft.
- They’ll root out drug dealers and bank robbers in Hogan’s Alley, the FBI’s mock town and practical training facility.
- They’ll expose terrorist cells and learn how to conduct challenging interviews.
- They’ll study legal issues and investigative procedures, gather and analyze evidence, and fire thousands of rounds at the range.
- Along the way, new agent trainees will work alongside new intelligence analysts to identify threats and develop critical thinking skills.
(New agents attend the FBI’s Onboarding New Employees (ONE) program before beginning their first week of training. The program introduces employees to the FBI’s history, culture, and structure. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)
The intense training regimen is necessary to prepare new agents to carry out the FBI’s complex mission of protecting the nation from a host of major national security and criminal threats—including those posed by terrorists, spies, hackers, gangs, and more—while upholding civil rights and the Constitution of the United States.
Just getting to the Academy was a long and hard-fought journey for the trainees arriving this summer day.
They had to compete against tens of thousands of applicants in one of the most grueling selection processes in the country.
(Special Agent David Lewis recalls arriving at the FBI Academy and feeling uncertain about the months ahead. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)
Navigating the many elements of the application process—including several rounds of interviews and a thorough background check—was its own test. Ultimately, perseverance paid off.
Like their predecessors, this class of new agents comes with a variety of career experiences—some not as traditional as you might expect.
The majority of students have military, law enforcement, or criminal justice backgrounds, but there are also former teachers, scientists, IT professionals, entrepreneurs, and more.
In today’s global and digitally driven age, diversity on many levels is a necessity for the FBI, and this group was carefully chosen for the wide-ranging set of skills and perspectives they bring to the table.
(Special Agent John Woodill remembers feeling exciting the moment he drove through the front gate at Quantico. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)
Many of the trainees are here after deciding to switch careers mid-stream, feeling the need to serve their country or tackle a new challenge.
For others, like Liz, being an agent is the culmination of a lifelong dream.
A St. Louis native, Liz worked her way through years of higher education and a career practicing civil law before applying to the FBI.
Now she’s finally at Quantico, suitcase in hand, ready to tackle the journey ahead.
“It felt surreal to finally be here after all this hard work,” Liz says.
“The best part about the first day was meeting my classmates for the first time and feeling so welcomed.”
“It helped calm my nerves.”
New agent trainees must take the physical fitness test, commonly known as the PFT, soon after they arrive at the FBI Academy.
It’s a demanding circuit that includes sit-ups, a 300-meter sprint, push-ups, and a one-and-a-half-mile run.
It wasn’t long after arriving at Academy that Liz and her fellow trainees received their first of many challenges: the physical fitness test, commonly known as the PFT.
It’s a demanding circuit that includes sit-ups, a 300-meter sprint, push-ups, and a one-and-a-half-mile run.
Passing the test is essential—not only to completing the rest of the Basic Field Training Course but to ensure new agents can effectively carry out their duties.
“Right before the test, everyone was trying to provide words of encouragement and support each other, much like going into a big game,” says Liz, who, like all of her fellow trainees, was required to maintain a level of fitness before coming to the Academy.
“Our class rallied and did that for each other. You go out, give it 100 percent, and put it all out on the line. I think we were successful at that.”
It’s a theme that will be repeated often in the coming weeks.
Inside the Classroom
Just beside Hogan’s Alley, the mock town and training facility at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, there’s a cluster of modern two-story buildings with several classrooms.
Inside one of the classrooms, new agent trainees are forming their squads for the morning when they receive word that an “explosion” has occurred in a nearby city.
Over the previous few weeks, the squad has been using the skills they’ve learned to investigate a simulated hotel bombing and track down the criminals responsible for the attack.
With this new report, trainees suspect that the events could be linked to terrorist activity.
But before they can identify subjects, the squad needs to gather intelligence, conduct interviews, and dig up more clues.
The agents’ partners in this effort are new FBI intelligence analysts who are training right alongside them.
(From day one at the FBI Academy, new agents train alongside intelligence analysts to be more prepared for collaborative work in the field. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)
Analysts—the men and women who help gather, share, and make sense of information and intelligence from all corners of the globe—have never been more vital to the Bureau’s mission in this post-9/11 world.
By integrating their training, the FBI is replicating what agents and analysts will experience in their coming cases and ensuring that seamless collaboration is part of their DNA from day one.
“Agent and analyst trainees need to understand each other’s respective job roles and how that plays out in the real world,” says Carrie Richardson-Zadra, a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Investigative and Intelligence Training Unit.
“That’s why we have them work together from the moment they arrive at the academy.”
(Kellie Holland, a special agent and unit chief with the FBI’s Training Division, explains the importance of integrating new agents and intelligence analysts at the Academy and how it’s made a positive impact in the field. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)
Later in the exercise, trainees begin questioning the wife of a suspected extremist (played by a local actor).
She’s reluctant to talk at first, but by using their newly learned interviewing tactics based on building rapport, the new agents are slowly able to obtain the information they need to stop a potential terrorist attack.
If it weren’t for the insight provided by the intelligence analysts in their squad, the trainees wouldn’t have been so successful.
While trainees are integrated both inside and outside the classroom, specialized courses are provided to students based on what their roles will be in the field.
For new agent trainees, the academic side of the training is demanding and includes a broad range of subjects that ground them in the fundamentals of law, ethics, behavioral science, interviewing and report writing, basic and advanced investigative and intelligence techniques, interrogation, and evidence collection.
Agent trainees also receive more than 90 hours of instruction and practical exercises focused on tactics, operations planning, cooperating witnesses and informants, physical and electronic surveillance, undercover operations, and intelligence.
The rigorous academics are vital to the future success of agent trainees.
They will need to learn the basics of federal law, the U.S. Constitution, and the legal process.
If agents don’t understand all of the details governing searches, questions could be raised during trial about the credibility of recovered evidence.
The intelligence analysts will ultimately graduate before the agents after 12 weeks at Quantico.
At that point, new agent trainees begin their tactical training and set their sights on the crooked criminals and gangs waiting for them in Hogan’s Alley.
Remembering Why They Serve
FBI agents wield substantial law enforcement powers, including the ability to make arrests and, along with analysts, to build a case that can put a person behind bars.
That’s why agents and analysts must be grounded in the fundamental principles of ethics and place the utmost value in protecting the innocent and upholding the rule of law.
As part of their ethics training, new agent and analyst trainees make two excursions to the nation’s capital that drive home the importance of protecting the public and preventing the abuse of authority.
The first trip, instituted by the Bureau in April 2000, is a specialized tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
After the tour, agents and analysts talk with museum representatives about how the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933 with the help of civilian police and the horrors that can occur when law enforcement fails to protect and serve with compassion and fairness.
In a second trip, which was incorporated into FBI Academy training in August 2014, students visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
The program—put together in partnership with the Memorial Foundation and the National Park Service—reminds trainees of past FBI mistakes, the importance of civil rights for all, and the need for oversight and accountability.
“Visiting the museum and the memorial was a sobering reminder about the misuse of power and the devastating impact of government and law enforcement not being checked,” says Jeremy, a new agent trainee.
“It reminds us that it’s our obligation to routinely calibrate our own moral compasses and always do the right thing for the American people.”
Preparing for the Field
It’s 8 a.m. on a Monday, and new agent trainees are gearing up to make an arrest at Hogan’s Alley.
Their subject: a wanted fugitive suspected of extortion and money laundering.
As trainees don tactical vests and holster side arms, team leaders brief their squads on a plan to safely enter the home of a middle-aged man who is considered armed and dangerous.
The trainees break off into their teams and head toward a house just outside of town.
(The law enforcement skills portion of the curriculum at the FBI Academy—which includes realistic exercises and intense tactical training—is very demanding and replicates what agents might see in the field. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)
Tensions are high as a group of students position themselves just outside the front door with shields in hand.
A lead agent knocks loudly and yells, “FBI, we have a search warrant, open the door!”—but the suspect doesn’t answer. The agents have no choice but to make a breach.
With flashlights out and weapons drawn, the suspect is safely rooted out, handcuffed, and brought into custody.
This type of exercise is one of many that new agents face while learning tactical and law enforcement skills during the FBI’s Basic Field Training Course and the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Whether it’s arresting fugitives or preventing terrorist attacks, Academy instructors have made each scenario as realistic as possible.
“We want to replicate what people are going to see in the field,” says M.A. Myers, a section chief at the FBI’s Training Division.
“The scenarios we’ve developed are all based on real agent cases. So an exercise in Hogan’s Alley is going to closely mirror what our instructors have seen during their own experiences.”
Since 1987, the training town has immersed new agents in a variety of intense and lifelike situations that challenge them to make the right call—with the help of actors playing criminals, victims, and bystanders.
“Hogan’s Alley is where the rubber meets the road. It’s where we get to experience what things could really look like out there,” says Sunny, a new agent trainee.
New agents are taught the latest tactical techniques and are immersed in realistic scenarios in Hogan’s Alley, the mock town and training facility at the FBI Academy.
Just behind Hogan’s Alley, trainees are speeding around a 1.1-mile road track and weaving their cars around orange cones on the precision obstacle course.
An instructor is closely watching the maneuvers as new agents push their way to the finish.
The driving techniques learned at the Academy’s Tactical Emergency Vehicle Operations Center, or TEVOC, prepare agents to handle a variety of dangerous situations like high-speed chases and reversing out of alleyways under fire.
(Take a virtual ride in this 360-degree video shot on the FBI Academy’s precision obstacle course as an instructor explains what types of maneuvers new agents are tested on behind the wheel. Best viewed on laptop or desktop. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)
Trainees also spend hundreds of hours across the Academy campus on the range, shooting countless rounds of ammunition.
New agents need to protect innocent lives and may be faced with dangerous encounters in the line of duty, so it’s necessary to become proficient with a variety of firearms, including the pistol, shotgun, and carbine.
“One of the most important things that we stress at the Academy is firearms training,” said Myers.
“We spend a lot of time with trainees teaching them how to handle firearms safely and to shoot accurately.” Trainees must qualify in a series of tests to graduate.
Just a few blocks from the indoor range sits a large field house.
Inside the building, a sea of blue exercise mats line the floor, along with fake padded furniture and a partial replica of a commercial airplane—items used by instructors to teach close-quarter defensive tactics like boxing, grappling, disarming, and searching.
In one of the drills, a subject (actually another trainee) refuses to stand up from his desk and be handcuffed, forcing agents to wrestle him to the ground.
As they bump up against the padded furniture, it takes two agents to subdue their subject.
It’s all over in a matter of seconds, but the realistic exercise simulates what could happen when criminals turn violent during an arrest.
For those students without any previous law enforcement or military experience, the tactical training can be one of the most challenging aspects of their time at the Academy.
They may have never thrown a punch, shot a weapon, or driven a car at high speeds. But to ensure that agents can safely do their jobs, instructors must push every trainee to their limits
“When we first got into the tactical training scenarios, it was a steep learning curve,” comments David, a new agent trainee.
“You really get to see how difficult it is to learn the special agent tradecraft.”
Fulfilling a Dream
On a cold Friday afternoon behind the FBI Academy field house, new agent trainees are shivering in a single-file line waiting to get blasted in the face with oleoresin capsicum—a substance more commonly known as pepper spray.
When it’s Liz’s turn, she waits with her eyes closed before the instructor asks if she’s ready. There’s no count to three or warning noise.
Before she knows it, her face is burning.
To pass this test, Liz has to open at least one eye, attack a punching bag, and defend herself from an assailant who’s trying to take her pistol out of its holster.
Amidst the chaos, Liz manages to subdue her subject, and the excruciating exercise is over.
It’s one of the final tests at the Academy. Up to this point, more than 800 hours have been spent in and out of classroom learning what it takes to become a special agent.
Trainees have worked together, studied together, and sweated together to complete one of the most challenging experiences of their lives. Now, it comes down to one last event: receiving their FBI badge and credentials on graduation day.
In one of their final tests before they graduate from the FBI Academy, new agent trainees are pepper sprayed to learn how to carry out their duties under a variety of challenging scenarios in the field.
It’s a crisp morning in January as hundreds of people file into the auditorium at the Academy.
Friends and family members—who have made their own sacrifices over the past five months, with plenty more to come—take their seats and wait in anticipation for their loved ones to officially become special agents.
After being sworn in, Liz makes her way to the wings of the auditorium with the rest of her classmates.
Clad in suits, they’re all now standing in line, waiting excitedly for their turn to go on stage and complete their journey at the Academy.
“The graduation is a moment you’ll never forget—standing up there, raising your right hand, repeating the oath, and then walking across the stage to get your creds and your badge,” says Kellie Holland.
“You’ve finally reached your dream of becoming a special agent of the FBI.”
(The graduation ceremony at the FBI Academy marks the culmination of 20 weeks of hard work and sacrifice, when new agent trainees become special agents of the FBI. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)
Like the rest of her classmates, Liz couldn’t take her eyes off the shimmering gold FBI badge and credentials she now held in her hands.
She made it. Now she will head to her first field office in Chicago, where her career as a special agent begins.
“I’m really excited to get things started. I feel like I’m going into a big family right away,” said Liz.
“I’ve already been in contact with my squad mates, and I feel prepared for this next transition. It already feels like an extension of the training I’ve received at Quantico.”
The Learning Never Ends
While the graduation ceremony serves as the culminating event for the new agents who have spent countless hours preparing to serve the country, training never stops.
As Supervisory Special Agent John Woodill puts it, special agents in the field are constantly striving to improve their tradecraft as they move from assignment to assignment.
Individuals assigned to public health cases, for example, must understand the complexities of the industry and the types of violations that may occur.
“There’s no success for any individuals who remain locked into certain mindsets as they go about their careers. Lifelong learning is absolutely essential—otherwise, things could get dangerous if you don’t stay on your game,” said Woodill.
(Special Agent John Woodill remembers feeling a sense of pride and obligation when he finally received his badge and credentials during graduation. Courtesy of the FBI and YouTube)