FBI sets its bar high for aspiring agents


QUANTICO, Va. - Every 20 minutes, something bad happens here in the town of Hogan's Alley. FBI agents swarm the pawnshop, a man from inside the pool hall is arrested and some guy who keeps pulling up in front of the coffee shop is thrown to the ground every time he gets out of his BMW.

Except for the fact that the same crimes keep happening over and over - and that the Dimetapp cough syrup boxes and the toothpaste containers have remained on the shelves of the town drugstore so long all the red coloring has faded to pink - the whole scenario might look real.

Hogan's Alley is a fake town on the campus of the FBI Academy in Quantico. It is a place that conjures up images of a Hollywood back lot and looks so realistic that FBI officials had to seal the mailboxes outside the post office because people kept depositing letters.

And it's the heart of the bureau's grueling 16-week training program that since Sept. 11 has been in overdrive.

The FBI is looking to hire and train about 1,400 support personnel and nearly 1,000 new agents, part of its biggest hiring push since the Vietnam War. These new recruits, the product of a post-Sept. 11 funding package from Congress, are intended to fan out to bureaus across the country to help track down terrorists and prevent future attacks.

So far, the agency says, it is well on its way to finding enough applicants because thousands of people, buoyed by patriotic fervor and a new, almost instantaneous admissions form, have flooded the bureau with applications.

Just to be sure the word is out, the bureau has launched a marketing blitz, peppering newspapers and magazines with such pitches as "Wanted: Future Agents." Yet for all their cheery, everyone's-got-a-shot tone, the ads obscure another truth: The FBI's hiring process is intense, notoriously long and really hard.

"It can be very difficult to get in," said Joseph Bross, head of national recruiting at the bureau's headquarters in Washington. "It's a selective process."

Statistics from years past show that less than 5 percent of those who apply will pass all the admissions tests and requirements and eventually be offered a job.

These days, as the bureau targets people with "critical skills," such as expertise in languages, computers and the sciences, applicants are arriving with stronger resumes than in the past. And the bureau has them all competing with one another.

Just to be considered, applicants must be U.S. citizens between ages 26 and 36, with at least three years of full-time work and a four--year college degree. Those who qualify undergo a series of written and oral tests that gauge verbal, math and analytical skills. Then they take a polygraph test meant to weed out those with criminal histories or drug use.

Those who pass take a physical exam and undergo a background check that can last for months. Agents will question neighbors, friends and employers - including previous bosses from their teen-age summer jobs selling hot dogs or clothes at the local mall. Mostly, they are looking for signs of violent or abusive behavior.

The written test, officials say, eliminates 30 percent of applicants. Of the 70 percent who pass, the interview and oral test knock out half. Of the remaining 35 percent of original applicants, only half pass the polygraph, physical and background exams.

The 17 or 18 percent of the original pool who survive then compete for the open spots at the FBI academy.

"We don't want to discourage people, but it's difficult," said Peter A. Gulotta Jr., a spokesman for the Baltimore field office, one of the top recruiting offices in the nation.

"Especially the polygraph," he said. "Because despite our warnings that you're not going to beat it, they'll go try anyway. There's no sense in embarrassing yourself."

One reason why the FBI can draw competitive talent is that it pays better than most law enforcement agencies. Recruits who make it to the academy receive a modest salary for the 16 weeks of training. Upon receiving their badge, they start at salaries ranging from $53,743 to $58,335.

Agents who stay with the force can earn up to $113,000 a year. Managers make even more. (Those salaries, though, include extra pay for mandatory overtime.)

Many of the recent applicants who responded to the bureau's recruiting efforts have been willing to leave established careers. Officials said even a couple of doctors and professors have applied.

Their presence is making the hiring process even more competitive for young newcomers already up against applicants who have waited through hiring freezes and background checks from, in some cases, two to three years ago.

The bureau has also made it its mission to bring in the best by getting local FBI offices to compete with one another to bring in the most applicants. Bureau offices have been sending agents out to community meetings to tout the bureau as a great place to funnel all the public service energy that has surfaced since the attacks.

It's not enough, though, to just get people to fill out an application.

"You can get the numbers, but they have to get through the training," said Lynne A. Hunt, special agent in charge of the Baltimore office. "We follow them closely. If they don't succeed, it doesn't look good for us."

As difficult and competitive as the testing process is for applicants, the training that recruits face once they are accepted into the academy is perhaps even tougher.

On the academy's grounds, the buildings sprawl out like a university campus, with dormitories (everyone gets a roommate) and classrooms, which teem with activity from sunup to late at night. For the first month of the four-month program, recruits must spend weekends on campus training.

"This isn't college," said Joseph Billy, acting assistant director of the FBI academy. "Their jobs depend on their ability to do these things.

"We always get people who decide this is not for them, who say, 'Hey, this really isn't something I can handle,'" he said. "I hate to lose people because you think everybody's got great potential, but we'd rather know that."

The academy, which during the FBI's recent hiring freezes had looked almost deserted, has been sending 50 new recruits through the school every two weeks almost since September. The school was set up to handle classes of 35.

In recent months, instructors said, they have been seeing many students who talk about public service, compared with a few years ago, when recruits seemed captivated by the glamorous - and often erroneous - images of the bureau from movies and TV shows like The X-Files.

The students must master the law, ethics, physical combat, weapons training - and figure out how to solve cases.

"I knew it was going to be tough, but you don't realize until you get here that it's going to be really, really tough," said a 32-year-old former accountant from Puerto Rico named Felix, who was offered a spot at the academy a few weeks ago. Officials asked that his last name not be used. "Physically, mentally, spiritually," he said, "if you're not ready, you won't make it."

Most classroom work is focused on criminal statutes, arrest procedures and liability. The firearms training will often knock out several students whose hands simply can't pull the trigger of a gun fast enough or hold it steady enough.

Some other recruits will fail the physical training, which includes hand-to-hand combat and arrest techniques.

Bridget Cox, a supervisory special agent who trains agents in physical skills, said the recruits must also learn to know reflexively where their handcuffs are, how to reach their weapon and how to grab either item with either hand.

"The people who have trouble here are out of shape, overweight or ill-prepared," Cox said on a recent day as about a hundred recruits writhed on a gym floor, learning how to escape a chokehold. "You have some people who have been sitting behind a desk for eight years at an accounting firm, and they absolutely dread coming here."

On top of it all, the agents must solve "cases."

As team of six agents in Hogan's Alley piled into "Allmed Drugs" recently, Mike A. Phillips, an instructor and veteran agent, did not seem pleased. The team had made two arrests, but they had to fire two shots in the process.

He gathered them in front of the cash register for a meeting.

"You have to think logically," he told them. "Let that which is most likely to occur, occur."

Phillips questioned them about their warrants, chastised them for not calling the local police - a mistake, he says, that the bureau makes too often - and told them to "use their coconuts."

As they filed out onto the street, where contract actors milled about in character, he reminded them to figure out where the nearest hospital is.

"If you're laying on the ground bleeding," he tells them, "you don't want your fellow agents standing around saying, 'Hmm, let's see. Who are we going to call?'"

The group managed to make their last arrest just as the next group began filing into town.

"This is a lot of hard work," Phillips said as he watched the recruits from across the street. New recruits "don't understand just how complex it can get. It's a process, not an event, and it takes a lot of time."

And for every class that graduates, finally receiving a slick badge in a black leather case, it's still not over.

"If we expected a finished product out of here," Phillips said, "we wouldn't need a two-year probationary period."

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