FBI progam gives teens a taste of what it’s like to be an agent

August 9, 2012

Yellow crime tape hung along the length of the block from the Bank of Hogan at one corner of the street to the pharmacy, Allmed Drugs, at the other. Each had just been robbed, and FBI agents prowled the sidewalks outside.

Alongside them, 38 teenagers swarmed the crime scene, pistols holstered at their hips and notebooks in their hands.

The robberies, pistols and crime scene were fake, a simulation set up at the FBI’s Hogan’s Alley training facility — complete with fake movie theater, used-car lot and suburban home — at the FBI Academy in Quantico.

Clad in matching white polo T-shirts and khaki pants, the more than three dozen Washington area high school students ran through the investigation Thursday, collecting evidence and conducting interviews. It was all part of the FBI’s Future Agents in Training Program, which this year had 20 boys and 18 girls ages 16 to 18 drawn from a pool of 84 applicants, FBI officials said.

The week-long summer program, described as being geared more toward education and awareness than recruitment, began in 2007.

Since Monday, the group had learned about counterintelligence, espionage, white-collar crime and more, FBI spokeswoman Lindsay Godwin said. On Friday, there’ll be a graduation ceremony, but on Thursday, the teens were putting what they had learned to work.

The simulation “kind of put them in the role of what it’s like to be an FBI agent,” said Abby Perkins, a supervisory special agent in community outreach at the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

The group gathered shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday in a small room at the Dogwood Inn, a fictitious Hogan’s Alley hotel. A blue sign on the wall read “No Live Ammo” in white letters. The students, who had been divided into five squads, were briefed by Eddie A. Winkley, a special agent with the FBI, who stood behind a lectern.

“There will be no horseplay,” Winkley told the teens as they sat at rows of tables, each with their own black Motorola walkie-talkie. “We’re gonna take this seriously.”

Winkley assigned each squad a task and sent them across the street to the crime scene.

Matt Rea, 17, shuffled into the Bank of Hogan along with more than a dozen other students to confront the robbery’s aftermath. Fake $5 bills were scattered on the ground, and a handful of frightened bank employees — FBI employees who volunteered for their roles — bickered about details they recalled from the crime.

While some students inspected the bank’s vault, others interviewed witnesses. Two bank employees exploded into an argument over the robber’s height.

“Ma’am, it’s alright,” Rea said firmly, positioning himself between the two workers and resuming his questioning.

Another argument broke out outside near a blue pay phone. This time, 17-year-old Marcus Edwards of the District stepped in.

“All right, all right, all right, let’s separate them,” he told his team.

The high-schoolers struggled to keep mock witnesses in check, watching as the actors changed stories, walked away frustrated and burst into tears. Many, like Rea, enjoyed it.

“That was awesome,” said Rea, who lives in Prince William County. “Being able to go around and interview people allows you to test your social skills and leadership qualities.”

About 11 a.m., the group reconvened, hunching over tables to exchange notes and stories from the people who had just been interviewed. Rea quickly took the lead, scribbling down a list of facts — the crimes happened between 9 and 9:30 a.m., one possible suspect was wearing a red-and-gold jersey — the group could corroborate.

“These are the things that we know for sure based on multiple witnesses,” Rea said.

After a quick break for lunch at an FBI Academy cafe, the group was back to work, reinterviewing witnesses to fill in holes in their story.

“It’s a good group,” Winkley said later. “They’re taking in a lot of good information and taking in a lot of detail.”

About 1:30 p.m., the exercise came to a head when FBI agents taught the students how to make arrests.

Fairfax County student Eric Marquez, 16, rapped on the door of the Dogwood Inn. He had just stepped carefully away from a large glass hotel room window, through which he might theoretically have been seen — or shot at. A group of other students lined up along a brick wall, blue mock pistols drawn.

The door creaked open and the group burst into the hotel room, telling an FBI agent masquerading as an arrestee to freeze, kneel and show his hands.

The day concluded with five arrests, including that of the bank’s “president.” Students had to get approval for simulated search and arrest warrants from a magistrate.

“It was very fun,” Marquez said.

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