Helen Dolive, left, and Lisa Townsend recently attended the FBI Citizens’ Academy at the invitation of the agency. The FBI has academies in major cities nationwide in an effort to foster relationships and understanding between the agency’s local field office and the community. Dolive and Townsend came away from the program with a favorable impression. “Their work isn’t easy, and it is vitally important,” Dolive says.

The Glock pistols Lisa Townsend and Helen Dolive held in their hands were disabled, but their hearts were pounding anyway.

Townsend, associate director of International Scholar & Student Services, and Dolive, immigration advisor, were on a fake assignment for the FBI. An arms dealer with a van full of semi-automatic weapons was closing his sale to an undercover FBI agent, and the deal was about to go awry.

Never mind that this was a simulation. Townsend and Dolive were so engaged in the exercise they almost believed it was real. And when it was time for them to jump from their cover and aid the FBI agent, they did their job.

“By golly, Helen and I nailed the bad guy,” Townsend says. “Some of our co-participants weren’t so lucky,” Dolive adds. “They shot the FBI agent.”

Citizen’s Academy

Townsend and Dolive attended the FBI Citizens’ Academy this past fall after an invitation from Paul Daymond, media representative for the Birmingham FBI office. The FBI wanted a closer relationship with UAB, and Townsend and Dolive were excited at the opportunity to learn more about the law-enforcement agency. The 10-week program provides insight on the structure and operations of the FBI and on practical issues involving evidence collection and intelligence gathering. Townsend and Dolive graduated from the program in December.

“They took us through every aspect of the FBI,” Townsend says. “White-collar crime, cyber-crime, Internet porn, computer forensics and hijacking scenarios. This program gave us a great amount of respect for what the FBI does.”

Daymond says the goal of the FBI Citizens’ Academy is to foster relationships and understanding between the agency’s local field office and the community.

“The academy is a chance for us to help the community get to know us,” Daymond says. “We serve the community, and we need their help, too. This helps us to have more eyes and ears in the community. We need all the help we can get. That’s true for us and all law-enforcement communities.”

The FBI began the program in 1993 in Phoenix, Ariz., and has expanded to all 56 FBI field offices across the country. Daymond says Townsend and Dolive were part of the seventh graduating class. Five of those classes were conducted in Birmingham and two in Huntsville. This year there will be a spring class in Huntsville and a class in Birmingham in the fall.

Special agents in charge of the Birmingham field office, their senior managers and senior agent experts all participated in teaching the course. The curriculum included:
• Practical problems involving evidence collection and preservation
• FBI jurisdiction and congressional oversight
• Structure and operation of FBI field offices and satellite agencies
• Fingerprint, forensic technology, training and other services
• Policies and issues: ethics, discipline, communications, drug enforcement, civil rights, and future criminal trends
• Firearms training

The participants were diverse in terms of race, faith affiliation and employment. Local business owners, a judge, bank workers and medical staff were just some of the occupations represented. Daymond says that is by design.

“We want to develop partnerships across our community,” he says. “It enables us to hear concerns from the entire community.”

Tough job

Dolive says the evidence training was insightful. “The collection of evidence is like you see on TV, but not really as high tech.” So was the scenario that involved a hijacked plane at the Birmingham airport; the class of 31 had to determine the facts.

“We needed to identify the terrorists,” Dolive says. “We were having to do this quickly, and it was difficult. It was hard to get all the data together.”

Townsend says she was particularly humbled when the class sat in on an Internet chat session where FBI agents were trying to catch pedophiles. “Being a parent and having children that get on sites like MySpace – watching that really floored me,” Townsend says. “It makes you wonder how these agents can go home and sleep at night when they know the kinds of things going on in our community.”

Stereotypes dismissed

Everyone has their own stereotypes for law-enforcement officials. Townsend and Dolive had theirs, they say. Some of them – clean-cut, always wearing a suit – were confirmed. Others were shattered.

Dolive, a native of England, says she knew of the FBI from television and working with them on cases elsewhere. Her impression wasn’t a positive one. “But I realized from going through this class that these are individuals who have a very tough job to do,” she says. “Their work isn’t easy, and it is vitally important.”

Townsend agrees.

“These are people who have dedicated their lives to protecting and serving,” she says. “I had no idea how much they were involved with, but I have a better understanding and even more respect for their work now.”

Contact the Birmingham FBI office at 279-1457 to find out more about Citizens’ Academy.