June 26, 2017

10 Clichés and Misconceptions About the FBI in Books, TV, and Movies

Cliches Misconceptions FBI

PHILADELPHIA-While producing and hosting my true crime – crime fiction podcast—FBI Retired Case File Review—over the last year, I’ve conducted more than 50 interviews with my former FBI colleagues about the high-profiled cases they worked while on the job. During almost every interview, one of us comments about some aspect of the case or an investigative method that had been portrayed in books, TV and movies as a cliché or inaccurately. I noted at least ten (10) misconceptions about the FBI that were repeatedly discussed. Just as some attorneys don’t read or watch legal dramas and some doctors avoid medical shows and novels, there’s a good chance FBI agents aren’t reading that bestselling book series or watching that popular show depicting the FBI.

(This post was also the topic of a lively podcast discussion between me and retired agent Bobby Chacon, a technical advisor for the TV show Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. Continue reading or listen here.)

Most people will never meet a FBI agent. The only connections they have with the FBI are the ones they make through books, TV, and movies, along with, of course, the news.

So, what if fictional portrayals of FBI agents are clichés or inaccurate? Does it really matter?

I believe it does. If fictional FBI agent characters are regulated to investigating only one or two types of violation or if they are written in negative and unflattering ways, when real FBI agents call someone on the phone or show up at a business or home to investigate actual cases, the response or cooperation they receive will no doubt be influenced by that last book that person read or TV show they watched about the FBI.

FBI agents and FBI cases are often used as inspiration for writing fascinating thrillers and crime stories.

As a matter of fact, the FBI currently has jurisdiction over violations of more than 200 categories of federal law.

So, answer me this, why are there so many novels—albeit well-written, entertaining, books—about FBI agents hunting down serial killers?

#1 there are teams of FBI profilers hunting serial killers. Although serial killings are relatively rare, books, movies and TV shows can give the false impression that they are roaming throughout the country. This is probably the most prevalent cliché. I blame the public’s fascination with serial killers and FBI profilers on bestselling author Thomas Harris, along with Jody Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glen. Silence of the Lambs is unquestionably one of the best novels and the best movie about the FBI and serial killers. But the Silence of the Lambs is a blessing and a curse. Stories about serial killers have become its own genre.

I worked as a special agent for 26 years and I know of only one or two FBI agents who were assigned cases involving a serial killer. Yes, there is a team of profilers in the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico. But at any given time, there are only 15 to 20 full-time special agent profilers assigned to the BAU and they are working on developing criminal profiles for people accused of all of kinds of violations. The primary goal of criminal investigative analysis is to examine the behavioral information submitted to the unit and provide advice to the requesting agency, rather than become involved in the actual investigative process. Currently, there are approximately 13,500 FBI agents and I can assure you that 99.9 percent of them are not hunting serial killers, terrorists maybe, but not serial killers.

#2 The FBI doesn’t play well with others. How many books have you read where a local detective or sheriff is working on a case and the FBI shows up and is rude and condescending? That storyline has been portrayed for so long that it’s self-perpetuating. In real life, FBI agents meeting local law enforcement for the first time must deal with those stereotypes and the resulting resentment and suspicion before they can deal with the investigative situation at hand, because, based on books and films, people expect the FBI to come in and try to take over an investigation. FBI agents respect and value the contributions other agencies bring to the table and strive to maintain collaborative relationships with all law enforcement partners.

#3 There is one central data base. Wouldn’t it be convenient if that were true? Believe me, it is impossible to type in a person’s name into a data base and have everything ever known about that person pop out a few minutes later. The National Computer Information Center NCIC, is an electronic clearinghouse of crime data, but it’s records are only as up-to-date as the numerous agencies responsible for making submissions. There are an endless number of data bases that must be searched to get a somewhat full and complete profile on an individual. Records are stored in local, state and federal computer files. Court districts maintain their own records. The military has separate record keeping systems. Medical and mental health records are not maintained at one resource. It could reasonably take an analyst days if not weeks to gather a comprehensive file on a subject.

#4 FBI Agents work for federal prosecutors. The FBI is its own entity.  In some, local municipalities, detectives are assigned to the district attorney’s office and work under the direction of an assistant DA. But in the federal system, the FBI investigates and the United States Attorney’s Office prosecutes. Now, before an agent goes too far into a complicated matter, he may consult the USAO for an opinion on the prosecutorial merit of a case. There’s no need to continue to gather information, if there no way a jury would convict, but agent don’t work “for” prosecutors (in the federal system – Assistant United States Attorneys or AUSAs). Another misconception is that prosecutors go out in the field with agents to participate in investigations, searches and arrests. With few exceptions that doesn’t happen. The team, agents and prosecutors, will participate in scheduled interviews together, especially proffers and witness preparations. But for the most part, FBI agents conduct the initial interviews and record their notes in FD-302 reports of interview, which are provided to the AUSA.

#5 All FBI agents work on task forces. To the contrary, for most violations agents work alone. They’ll team up with a squad mate for corroboration and/or safety concerns, however, the FBI requires agents to assume an almost entrepreneurial ownership of their cases. Each assignment is like running a business. FBI agents must figure out the manpower and resources needed and there’s no one standing over them checking on their daily progress. Every 90-days the squad supervisor reviews the agents’ case files, looking for documentation that they are pulling their weight. In the end, the statistics report the facts—how many interviews, searches, arrests, indictments, trials, convictions have been logged in since the last file review. It’s a competitive environment. No one wants to be known as an empty suit.

#6 FBI Senior Executives are out in the field. FBI management does not go out in the field to participate in searches or arrests. The last place the Director of the FBI, an ADIC (Assistant Director in Charge), a SAC (Special Agent in Charge) or an Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) wants to be is in the field. What if something goes terrible wrong? The name of the game in moving up the ladder in the FBI is plausible deniability. Agents often warn each other, “when upper management gets too involved, an agent has lost all control of his case.”

#7 Agents use intimidation and threats during interrogations. The appropriate FBI term is interview, not interrogation and agents prefer to rely on their charm and skills of persuasion, not force, to convince subjects and witnesses to cooperate.  In most instances, adversarial confrontations are avoided, because in addition to conducting interviews, agents are always looking to develop informants. Every field agent is required and evaluated on his or her participation in the collection of human intelligence (HUMINT) and everyone they speak with is considered a potential candidate. Be nice to the subject you arrest today, and he may become your informant or cooperating witness tomorrow.

#8 FBI agents are perfect and never get in trouble. This one is kind of true. For the most part, we leave bad behavior to the Secret Service (just joking). Unfortunately, a few FBI agents have made some serious mistakes and boneheaded transgressions. But, there is a saying in the FBI – “Don’t embarrass the Bureau” and the core belief that behavior of each special agent is a direct reflection of the agency. It’s expected that everything an FBI agent says and does will project a positive image and mirror the viewpoint of the “front office.” That’s because agents take that whole Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity stuff very seriously. Translated to real life situations those words connote loyalty, confidence and well… integrity. And by the way, in the FBI internal affairs is called OPR, the Office of Professional Responsibility.

#9 Agents have no sense of humor. FBI agents are assigned to squads based on related violations. Because of the often-dangerous mission and the long hours worked, squad members develop close personal relationships and each squad is like a large dysfunctional family. Practical jokes are pulled on a frequent basis. A common prank is when an agent leaves his credentials out on his desk and his official ID photo is covered with a photo of say. . . Mickey Mouse or Homer Simpson. Unfortunately, he won’t know his creds have been tampered with until the next time he takes them out to display to someone. FBI agents take their jobs seriously, but not necessarily themselves.

#10 Most FBI agents are white males. Recent books, TV shows and movies portray the FBI as a highly diverse organization, but the old image is still somewhat accurate. Approximately 70 percent of special agents are white males. However, agents are not the cookie cutter models from central casting portrayed in years past, the FBI agent workforce also includes women (20%), minorities (17%) and individuals of different religions and sexual orientations. All law enforcement agencies should reflect the population they serve and the FBI is actively recruiting more minorities to apply. Black women account for only 1 percent of the special agent workforce, so I’m always in recruitment mode. If you or someone you know meets the qualifications, please consider applying for the Special Agent position.

There are, of course, other issues regarding the way FBI agents are portrayed in books, TV shows and movies. More myths were addressed in a Business Insider’s article by Aine Cain titled, 11 things Hollywood gets wrong about being an FBI agent — and one thing it gets right and a blogpost I wrote called, AN OPEN LETTER TO THE WRITERS, PRODUCERS AND FANS OF TV SHOW QUANTICO.

You can also listen to my podcast – FBI Retired Case File Review. The episodes provide listeners the opportunity to get behind-the-scenes insights into what it’s really like to be an agent. I affectionately label the podcast as the diet or light version of true crime. For the most part, FBI cases have less blood and gore, but lots of intrigue and suspense. With the recent major hit on the FBI’s reputation because of issues related to the election, this type of transparent look at the FBI is needed more than ever, don’t you think?

I must confess that in my debut crime novel, PAY TO PLAY, about a female FBI agent investigating corruption in the Philadelphia strip club industry, I have my main characters doing things that would get real FBI agents in some serious trouble. It’s a police procedural inspired by actual FBI cases, but with the boring parts left out.


Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, attempts to relive her glory days by writing crime fiction and hosting FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast available for subscription on iTunes and Stitcher. Her debut novel—Pay To Play— about a female agent investigating corruption in the Philadelphia strip club industry is available now at  

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