FBI Citizens' Academy helps organization form better relationships with communities

CLEVELAND - We all know that frustrating sensation when we're out and about in the world, go to grab our cell phone, only to discover it's not there. We forgot it. And feel naked without it.

This time, I didn't have a choice.

I had to leave my smartphone and netbook in my car, which was parked in the lot of the Cleveland FBI. My constant companions just didn't have the clearance to enter the building.

I had to be buzzed into the gates. I was screened at security. After being cleared, a staff member took me into the bowels of the building, where I posed for a picture for a new badge.

While going through the process, I mused on the perception of the FBI. Do people view its presence as comforting? Intimidating? On first impression, the word I would use to describe it would be friendly.

I was directed back upstairs to a large conference room. After weeks of phone calls, emails, forms, faxes – and a background check – I finally met my fellow members of the FBI Citizens' Academy.

The Spring 2012 FBI Citizens' Academy in Cleveland has nearly 30 members. As we introduced ourselves, it became clear a "who's who" of northeast Ohio notables had been assembled.

This class consisted of doctors, lawyers, computer specialists, security professionals, bank executives, a couple journalists, and people who run local industries for products you probably have in your home right now.

I told them how I grew up in northeast Ohio, went to Xavier University in Cincinnati, and have been a producer at NewsChannel5 for seven years. Covering the news every day, I've become acutely aware of the tensions in the world and the constant threats facing the U.S.

After hearing from each of them, I noticed a trend: all seemed to have a large sense of service toward their community.

The FBI Citizens' Academy came into existence in 1993. In that time, it accumulated more than 10,000 members.

"Our goal is to be transparent...It's all about partnerships and trust," said Special Agent in Charge of the Cleveland bureau, Stephen Anthony.

Anthony laid out the growing threats the FBI must handle, from criminal organizations in the country, to cyber and terror threats from around the world.

The FBI hopes the Citizens' Academy can help it better understand the communities it serves, and thereby more effectively protect them.

The Bureau also aims to clear up any misconceptions. Anthony said many people form their view of the organization from TV shows, like "CSI." In reality, the Bureau does not have nearly as many fancy touchscreen computer walls as the fictional shows would have us believe.

What the FBI does have are three primary branches. The bureau's initial purpose was to handle criminal activity, which includes corruption, organized crime, gang activity, civil rights, and human trafficking, which has become a growing problem, particularly in northeast Ohio.

After the 9/11 terror attacks, the FBI had to shift much of its attention to global threats, increasing the importance for the branch focusing intelligence and counterintelligence. This branch aims to gather more information and stop those who are trying to steal ours.

The purpose of the third branch is counterterrorism and cyber threats.

"What I've seen on cyber scares me just as much as terrorism does," said Assistant Special Agent in Charge George Crouch.

Since 9/11, the FBI expanded its reach, and now has branches located in dozens of countries worldwide. The internal and external threats to our country continue to grow.

Another agent offered some stunning perspective. The FBI has roughly 35,000 employees worldwide. In contrast, the New York City police department has 40,000 officers for that city alone.

For that reason, the FBI aims to make itself transparent, ensure its trust to the public, and make the best use of as many relationships as it can form with the Citizens' Academy.

"We always work hard to keep your trust," Anthony said. "We can't do our job if we lose your trust."

And I realized a solemn responsibility: I play a small part in that trust. In fact, we all do. The next weeks and months would show me how.

[Look for Colin McDermott's weekly write-up on his experience at the FBI Citizens' Academy over the next two months.]

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