What I learned from attending the FBI National Academy
Genuine opportunities arise for honest conversations and difficult discussions about the critical issues facing the policing profession
By Major Christian Quinn, P1 Contributor
I was hesitant when asked to write about my recent experience at the FBI National Academy (FBINA). I’m no more qualified to offer insights than any of the amazing law enforcement leaders I shared the experience with, nor the countless others who went through the program before me. However, that is precisely the essence of the FBINA – each individual has an experience that is their own based, in large part, on their level of engagement and attitude when they arrive.
Most people wait a considerable amount of time and endure a lengthy vetting process before they’re able to attend, so they’re excited at the opportunity. Furthermore, each class has a unique collective experience based on the assortment of personalities in the session and events going on in law enforcement during their time at the FBI National Academy.
About the FBI National Academy
The FBINA was established in the 1930s in response to a national push toward the standardization and professionalization of police departments in the U.S. Today, the FBINA is conducted as a 10-week program offering undergraduate and graduate courses at the FBI campus in Quantico, Virginia.
I attended the spring session from April through June 2018. My session had 232 students, representing 48 states and 25 countries.
When you arrive at Quantico, the Academy appears enormous and confusing. Multiple buildings are connected through a series of glass hallways and you feel you’ll never be able to figure out where you’re going; however, in time, the place feels like home. Dining is cafeteria style, but the food is surprisingly good. I also appreciated that there is plenty of fitness equipment on site accessible at any hour of the day. Students wear a uniform for class and have dedicated clothes for physical training so there is little need to bring many of your own clothes.
The staff are the unsung heroes of the FBI Academy. They provide efficient laundry service so clean towels and bedding are easily accessible. For conducting research, the on-site library is excellent, with staff available to assist students who haven’t been in a library for quite some time.
Quantico is a place of constant activity, between the Marine Corps base and the FBI Academy. There are helicopters flying, people exercising, firearms training, people headed to the library, speakers coming in, personnel arriving from the field for training, and sessions for new agents and analysts starting or graduating. The FBI does a great job paying homage to its history and values throughout the facility. There is a sense of prestige coupled with a commitment to continual learning and development.
FBI National Academy Pillars
There are three pillars to the FBI National Academy:
1. Academic learning
Before arriving at Quantico, students register online for classes, so they already know which academic courses they’re enrolled in.
The FBINA follows a collegiate model, so attendees have core courses they have to take – like physical training and contemporary issues in law enforcement – but the rest of a student’s curriculum is primarily dependent on what they select for themselves. I focused on leadership, cyber investigations, communication and media relations. I also took only graduate-level courses, which I regretted mid-session when I had loads of papers to write, but am now grateful, as I earned 17 credits toward a graduate certificate from the University of Virginia. Instructors are genuinely engaged and want students to maximize the opportunity. They impart information, but also facilitate the sharing of knowledge among the attendees.
The FBINA offers a unique environment for sharing ideas and peer learning. On the one hand, you’re among people who have had similar experiences to you. You get to know them well because you’re living with them every day and are somewhat cut off from the rest of the world. On the other hand, you’re only together for 10 weeks and you know you’re not going to be working with them, so there is little preoccupation about expressing a dissenting opinion, breaking political alliances, or saving face. Genuine opportunities arise for honest conversations and difficult discussions, many of which don’t take place in the classroom. Some of the most productive discussions occur over meals, out on a run, or while socializing.
In addition to the coursework, the FBINA brings in an impressive roster of speakers. Law enforcement and military professionals provide candid briefings regarding high-profile tactical operations and noteworthy major investigations. Other speakers address topics such as officer wellness and resiliency, victimology and other contemporary law enforcement issues. There is no other forum where you are afforded the opportunity to see so many valuable presentations in a single setting.
2. Physical fitness training
I appreciated the physical training program. I found that I did my required workouts and fitness challenges and often still felt good enough to do something else on my own later in the day. Some classmates even hosted classes for fellow students on everything from CrossFit to yoga.
The capstone of the fitness program is the “Yellow Brick Road,” a 6.1-mile run through a hilly, wooded trail built by the Marines. Runners climb over walls, wade through creeks and navigate obstacles before completing a road run back to the FBI Academy. Students completing the course are awarded a yellow brick with their session number on it to commemorate the event. The course is known as the “Yellow Brick Road” because it’s marked by yellow stones at various spots along the trail. The FBINA has awarded the yellow bricks since 1988. Many graduates have remarked on the automatic connection felt when meeting another law enforcement official if they spot a yellow brick displayed in that person’s office.
Without question, meeting so many other law enforcement leaders from around the world is the highlight of attending the FBINA. It’s a unique privilege to be around people who have traveled similar roads you have, faced similar challenges, or can simply identify with your triumphs and frustrations. I am not particularly outgoing but made a deliberate effort to meet as many people as I could.
Unique things happen in each session; some of my classmates lost loved ones, some suffered injuries or overcame medical challenges. These hardships solidified bonds of friendship and often served as rallying points to support our classmates. There were lots of funny and mundane things we did to pass the time. I participated in dice games, with nothing more than bragging rights at stake, with all the enthusiasm and intensity of a Vegas high-roller. Admittedly, I really miss those games; in truth, not so much the games, but the camaraderie that comes from spending time with great people.
Around week 8, I started feeling like I was ready to return to “real life.” Dorm living gets old, and students are eager to get back to their families and their own routines. Those who live on the east coast don’t have it as tough because it’s easier to visit with family during the session. For many of my international friends or classmates from western states, being homesick is part of the experience.
Life after the FBI National Academy
When you leave the FBINA, while the experience is over, you can maintain the friendships and apply the information that you’ve gleaned. I have already observed my classmates reaching out to our new network to share resources and seek insights. Following graduation, attendees can join the FBI National Academy Associates, an association of more than 16,000 law enforcement professionals dedicated to fostering increased competency, cooperation, and integrity throughout the law enforcement community. Since 1935, more than 51,000 men and women have graduated from the FBINA and I am privileged to be one of them.
Information on the FBI National Academy nominating process is available here.
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About the Author
Major Christian Quinn is a 22-year veteran law enforcement officer and currently serves as the commander of the Cyber & Forensic Bureau with the Fairfax County Police Department in Fairfax, Virginia. He holds a Master of Forensic Sciences Degree from the George Washington University and a BA in Criminal Justice from Stonehill College. He graduated with Session #272 of the FBI National Academy in June 2018.