Famously known as the training grounds for incoming special agents, the FBI’s sprawling academy in Quantico, Virginia also plays host to some 1,000 domestic and international law enforcement executives every year.
Since 1935, the agency’s prestigious National Academy (NA) has brought together policing leaders of varying backgrounds for an intensive professional development course under the guidance of FBI leadership. There, law enforcement brass integrate for ten weeks, living together in academy dorms, undergoing strenuous physical training and classroom instruction by seasoned special agents and subject matter experts.
“The National Academy is actually one of the FBI's cornerstone programs,” said Mark Morgan, assistant director for the bureau’s Training Division. “We put them in an environment where we facilitate coursework, and really facilitate the students coming together, and create an environment where they can exchange ideas right now with the twenty-first century challenges faced in law enforcement.”
Prompted by those twenty-first century challenges, FBI leadership has adjusted the NA’s curriculum to address a host of issues ranging from threats posed by homegrown extremists to tensions between police departments and the communities they serve. Now in its 264th session, National Academy students undergo a mandatory classroom leadership course designed partly to address the contentious issue of police mistrust, which is front and center in several jurisdictions around the country.
Infused into those leadership discussions are findings outlined by the Obama Administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was commissioned in December 2014 with the goal of strengthening law enforcement and community relations nationwide.
“It’s an extremely tough year,” said Stephanie Shannon, National Academy student and Commander at the Simi Valley, California Police Department. “The pressures on law enforcement to try to perform at the levels that they want to be performing, but knowing that everything they're doing is being criticized, is very challenging and very stressful for the men and women that are doing this job.”
Asked what she hopes to bring back to her department upon graduation, Shannon said enhanced community partnership and policing programs, emphasizing a desire to provide more transparency to the residents of Simi Valley.
But partnerships between law enforcement agencies and their respective communities are not the only ones being discussed at the National Academy.
One of the bedrock principles of the NA since its inception has been to build strong relationships amongst local, state, federal, and international agencies in order to enhance the flow of critical information and intelligence. And in the current terrorism threat environment and age of Internet radicalization, those bonds are more important than ever before.
“I think people realize now that integration and sharing information is not something that's nice to think about. It's not a luxury, it's a must,” said Morgan. “I think everybody gets that – in the national security and law enforcement side – but that doesn't mean it's easy to do.”
And given the robust threat climate the international community has been grappling with, whether it be an Al Qaeda plot targeting commuter trains in Madrid, Spain or a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California inspired by ISIS, local police are often the first on the scene.
"Now, in a global world it is important to have different links with other police, not just national but also international fellows," said Juan Gonzales Somovilla, National Academy student and lieutenant with Spain’s Guardia Civil. “To work all together is essential at this moment.”
And with the burgeoning digital threat that knows no borders, FBI leadership has added rigorous coursework in cybersecurity in order to familiarize law enforcement executives from departments of all sizes of the capabilities of modern day hackers.
“Most law enforcement agencies out there are fifty sworn officers or less,” Morgan explained. “What can they do? What should they be doing in their department from a leadership perspective to help become part of combating the threat?”