What It's Like to Be an FBI Agent
Jack Owens attended law school although he never wanted to be a lawyer. He chose a profession based on rules, regulations, and bureaucracy, but he wasn't much of a rules guy. For 30 years, Jack Owens was an FBI agent, catching bad guys, working Cold War counterintelligence, and earning a spot on the S.W.A.T. team, often while bending the rules a bit. He chronicled his career in a memoir: "Don't Shoot, We're Republicans."
The Old-Fashioned Way
Jack Owens, 66, joined the FBI in 1969. J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director and technology meant secure phone lines. No computers; information was kept on index cards. Even radio lines couldn't be counted on.
For a little perspective, when Owens started, he used a revolver that shot six rounds. When he retired, he had a semi-automatic that held 15 rounds. But Owens was still trained to be an expert marksman, and most importantly, a good interviewer.
"I loved developing informants. I got interviews with people from the Klan, from organized crime members," he tells AOL Jobs. "I established a relationship with them when they were in prison and when they got out they would call me."
He says that establishing relationships is paramount in law enforcement, which is independent of technology. Mothers of fugitives often would be his best sources.
"They hear momma calling and they come home," he says. "I get them by developing a relationship with the mother.
"Many mothers told me about their fugitive children. They would say, 'Take them off the street because they're going to get hurt,' that's their concern."
Rules? What rules?
As a law enforcement organization, the FBI has many rules. In Owen's time, mostly spent in Birmingham, Ala., that ranged from wearing dark suits to never apprehending someone alone. He often bucked those rules and, luckily, never fired his weapon nor was fired on.
"You don't fire your weapon unless it's in defense of yourself," he says. "You fire your weapon and you spend the rest of your career explaining why. If they're shooting at us, we shoot to kill."
He tells a story of how he apprehended a hard-to-catch Army deserter not in a suit with a regulation FBI unmarked sedan, but in bell bottoms and his VW bug, with one headlight out. Further, he sat down to breakfast with the guy and didn't handcuff him!
Owens loved that his job was never boring. Every day, week, or month brought new experiences. The title of his book, "Don't Shoot, We're Republicans," refers to a case when he and other agents had set up a roadblock to catch a fugitive. Two cars approached the road block. The first car held the fugitive who exited his car, hands in the air. The occupants of the second car, two elderly women, also exited their car, arms in the air. "Don't shoot, we're Republicans!"
Oddly, the only times Owens admits to being truly scared on the job was when he was following the rules - once when an armed drug dealer walked right up to him in a stakeout position, and another, before dealing with a prison riot. He got his man in the first instance; in the second, he got called off the assignment.
"That's what law enforcement's all about. You get this adrenaline rush then nothing happens and you go to the Waffle House and have coffee," he says.
Before His Time
When Owens first worked at the FBI, his co-workers were white men. All of them. But from the beginning, Owens knew that the FBI was missing a great opportunity by not actively recruiting women and minorities. J. Edgar Hoover did not agree, so when he died, Owens made it his mission to change recruitment.
"From the time my brother and I were kids, our parents felt that all people had worth. I grew up with that," he says. "I was able to make Birmingham one of the top recruiting offices. I took it as my charge and my legacy. Especially since I had daughters."
While Owens focused on recruiting women specifically for agent positions, currently, the FBI employs women for almost 50% of it's 35,000 workforce and 25% are minorities.
Owens joined the FBI as a cocky 24-year-old, feeling invincible and and übercool. He chose to put his work before his wife and three sons, and he paid for that decision. He learned his lesson with a second marriage.
"I had to grow up. I ruined my first marriage. I just thought I had to be at work. It stopped being that way around 30 or 31," he says.
"I wanted to do it all. As my three sons started getting older, and then I had three daughters, they became much more important to me than the job. I was a good agent. I was very productive. But I was able to be a good agent and go home."
Now, he is a grandparent. Owens doesn't miss his bureau days. He's happy with his second career as a writer and novelist. But he's had to adjust to an audience that isn't as impressed with his new job.
"I used to show my FBI credentials and the water would part," he says. "Now I walk into a room and say, 'I'm an author' and it's like 'Who gives a sh-t?' "
So You Want to Be an FBI Agent?
It used to be that FBI agents were recruited from a legion of law and accounting graduates. It's not that way anymore; prospective agents can study anything. Owens once recruited a dentist who was tired of dental work. He suggests developing reading and speaking skills.
"Read books. You have to expand and deepen and widen your vocabulary. Get off the computer," he says. "Force yourself to speak publicly."
He says that in comparing the FBI to local police forces, police have a much tougher job. Often, police and the FBI work together on cases like bank robberies.
"They have to be all things to all people. They sometimes work alone," he says. "In the U.S., we lose 150 police officers a year. In 103 years of the FBI, we've only lost 43 agents. It's the nature of the beast. It's our training. We can plan and outnumber people. Cops can't do that."
It also helps to have a sense of humor. Owens says that people would be surprised at how laid-back many agents are. Before a prison raid, he and his fellow agents watched "The Naked Gun" while they waited for the signal to proceed with their mission.