It’s not like TV! It’s better!
That was the message that FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) Special Agents Scott Robbins and Matt Walbridge ‘87 gave to students in Forensics Science class about a career in the bureau.
“What you see on TV is not the real world,” Walbridge said. “We don’t drive around in Humvees or fly around in planes to wherever we want to go. Many young people want to get into CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), but they’re not getting into anything like you see on TV,” he said.
Yes, FBI agents do investigate crime scenes like those on TV, Walbridge said, but there’s less glamor and more appreciation of the slow, painstakingly detailed work that can lead to convictions - often many years later. It’s the same meticulous process that Olivia Kennedy’s students have learned in class.
“Their class projects cover so many real-life topics,” Kennedy said. “They learn observation, collecting evidence, fingerprinting, hair and fiber analysis, working with Plaster of Paris, and making and interpreting impressions of bite marks, tire marks, and footprints. Soon they’ll be analyzing blood spatter,” she said.
For students, the benefits are clear. “In Forensics we’ve learned about collecting evidence, sketching the scene, and all the other things you do when you arrive at a crime scene,” said Angel Belonwu. Jack Smeloff agreed. “We’ve learned how to take evidence, secure it, and how to document a crime scene,” he said.
For classmate Christina Paluzzi, she could see how what she has learned in her classes would benefit a career in CSI. “I think all of the things I learn in Forensics and Psychology, and maybe Statistics, could contribute with evidence gathering and crime scene investigations,” she said.
“It all comes down to documentation,” said Robbins, confirming the value of the students’ lessons. He provided a hypothetical example of a scene with a bloody tablet. You would need fingerprints and photographs, and would have to document everything, he said. “Through the crime scene photography, the photos tell the story - where everything is, how the crime unfolded. It may be two, four, or five years down the road when you testify in court, and you’ll be asked - did you take notes, do you have a picture, is your signature on the document? And meanwhile, what do you do with all that stuff? You have to process the evidence when you get back to the office and write a report.”
Some of the evidence the agents gather may go to the bureau’s world-renowned crime lab at Quantico, VA, where samples of DNA, hair, fibers, and paint chips are processed. The lab boasts an impressive collection of paints which can help identify a vehicle’s make and year of manufacture. “They have a library there of every paint sprayed on every car since the 1920’s,” Robbins said.
The tools of the trade, such as hidden cameras and microphones, were a highlight of the presentation.
Senior John Barry and Robbins left the classroom to have a brief conversation in the hallway - a conversation which the class could hear on a walkie talkie and see on a screen. “It was most interesting how he recorded us,” said Alexa Alexandra. “I learned about the process they have to go through to watch and listen to people through their devices.”
Recording conversations, which happens so easily on TV shows, isn’t as easy in real life, Walbridge said. “It’s very difficult to get authorization from a judge to listen to a conversation, to use cameras,” he said. “Sometimes it can take years. But we believe in the process of going through the courts, of getting a court order,” he said.
“I’m a citizen too,” added Robbins, “and glad that it’s difficult for government to listen in.”
Students also had the opportunity to try on Kevlar vests with the letters, FBI, emblazoned on them, to see another vest’s interior layers, and to view damaged bullets that had been been shot into the bulletproof fabric. “I appreciated that they brought in bulletproof vests,” said Oronde Alfred. “It gave me more insight into the reality of the job.”
Robbins and Walbridge are experienced with Kevlar vests and guns. Both are firearm instructors, a job which is part of their “collateral duty” or volunteer assignments that go beyond their investigative work.
Their experience and training in investigative techniques and the use of weapons is crucial for their jobs. Walbridge’s first assignment was to investigate violent crimes, kidnappings, bank robberies, homicides, and sexual assaults. Robbins used his expertise to investigate white collar crimes such as fraud, bribery, misuse of office for personal gain, and corruption of government officials and police officers.
For students interested in joining the FBI someday, it isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible, the agents said.
“We used to hire people with a high school degree,” Walbridge said, “but today you need a bachelor’s or master’s degree just to get an entry level job, even as a secretary.” An agent’s position requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, he said.
“A specialized background improves your chances of being hired,” said Robbins. “If you have a passion, a super intellect in an area of science, or want to be a lawyer, follow that passion first and then the bureau will hire you.” The FBI, he noted, does not send its employees to school. “Often times, career changers who already have an established expertise, seek employment with us. The hard sciences, such as chemistry, metallurgy and geology; and expertise in engineering, accounting, law; and second languages such as Arabic, Spanish, Chinese and many others, are specialities the bureau seeks.”
For those who prefer working behind the scenes, which is true of roughly half of the bureau’s approximately 30,000 employees in the U.S. and 57 overseas offices, there are opportunities as secretaries, accountants, computer experts, lab scientists, and language translators who all support agents in the field.
“I want to become an accountant, so maybe I can work for the FBI someday after all,” said Jared Kennedy.
A clean background and record is a must for employment.
“Your behavior is important,” Robbins said. “During your interview, you are connected to a polygraph machine and asked about your whole life such as drug usage and contact with foreign nationals. We also look at social media and what’s online. Have a conscientiousness about what you post, since the information tends to stay there.”
“What you do in one minute could hurt you for the rest of your life,” said Walbridge. “A DUI (Driving Under the Influence) won’t get you into the agency, neither will a default on a school loan. Remember, there are plenty of applicants!”
And for those who make it, the effort is worth it. “It was important for the students to see the FBI agents’ passion, because they might want to be an FBI agent in the future,” said Yiming Zhang. “For some children, growing up to be a police officer, or an FBI agent is like a dream come true.”
Walbridge is an alumnus with a close family connection to the school. He is the son of Joe ‘58, parent of Matt ‘15, and brother of Kristin ‘84, Jennifer ‘88, and Mark ‘91. He and Robbins are looking to return with the the crime scene van on a future trip.
It’s not like TV! It’s better!