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FBI National Academy: A network of trust that helps Ohio

Membership has its privileges.

For law enforcement officers who appreciate the importance of national and global connections in fighting crime, the FBI National Academy alumni network is the club to be in.

Known as one of the premier law enforcement programs in the world, the National Academy was founded in 1935 to provide advanced training to senior officers who are proven leaders within their organizations. Academy graduates make up less than 1% of the country’s law enforcement officers.
Numerous leaders at the attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy have attended the 10-week program, held at the FBI’s training facility in Quantico, Virginia, which shares ground with the Marine Corps base there.

Invariably, those graduates say the experience is transformative, both for the unparalleled education they receive and the influential contacts they make.

One benefit of attending the National Academy is that it breaks down silos, said Tom Quinlan, OPOTA’s assistant executive director, who attended the academy in 2012 while with the Columbus Division of Police.

“Police are a naturally suspicious people — it’s just our nature,” he said. “But there’s a trust factor that occurs among National Academy graduates, and not just among your classmates but among all NA graduates.”

The National Academy, which follows a very selective admissions process, has now graduated 286 classes, totaling more than 54,000 alumni worldwide.

BCI Special Agent-in-Charge Mark Kollar, a spring graduate, is the latest member of the Attorney General’s Office to attend. His class consisted of men and women from 47 states and the District of Columbia. In all, law enforcement officers from 28 countries were represented.

The academy offers undergraduate- and graduate-level college courses through the University of Virginia. But as cutting-edge as the classes are, Kollar said, what happens outside the classroom is as important as what happens inside.

Each academy class concludes with attendees attempting a grueling 6.1-mile obstacle course built by Marines — called the Yellow Brick Road. Finishers receive a highly prized yellow brick to commemorate their success. But before they can even think about tackling the course, academy students must prove during the first week of the session that they can run a mile in under 10 minutes.

Kollar said the qualifying run that first week inspired spontaneous camaraderie among the hundreds of officers who just days before had entered the academy’s doors for the first time.

“The run was really an individual event, each of us trying to get our best time,” he said. “But as soon as people finished, they would get back on the track and find somebody who was struggling and run with them and help motivate them. The last person who crossed the line had probably 30 people running alongside him — an entire group of people motivating him with each step.”

That same camaraderie lives on among classmates and other alumni throughout their careers, frequently becoming a bridge to crucial collaborations.

Soon after BCI’s Roger Davis graduated from the academy in 2019, BCI tapped him to head up a new multidisciplinary Cold Case Unit as a special agent-in-charge. On numerous occasions since, he said, academy classmates and other alumni have provided him invaluable assistance.

“Anytime a supervisor or agent needs help from Pennsylvania or Texas or wherever, I’m able to reach out to my network — and not just former classmates but every graduate listed in the directory,” Davis said. “And if they can’t help directly, they can often intercede for me with another agency.

“It can be as simple as something like, ‘Hey, I went to the FBI National Academy with Roger. Can you help him out?’ ”

He mentioned a sexual assault case for which, because of his contacts, he was able to quickly secure a DNA standard from California.

“Having these contacts just greatly streamlines the process,” he said.

Quinlan said law enforcement tended to operate in silos in the past — a key failing cited by the 9/11 Commission, he noted. “They found communication fragmented at best, which created missed opportunities to intervene. Establishing relationships with partnering agencies reduces these gaps.”
The National Academy and the FBI National Executive Institute, which Quinlan also attended, play a big part in breaking down those silos.

“As a National Academy graduate, you can quickly get in touch with the top echelon of law enforcement basically anywhere in the world,” he said.

As an example, Quinlan cited the 2015 terrorist attack at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, where 12 people were slain. He knew that a classmate, a Paris police official, would be deeply involved in the investigation, so he texted him with a short note of encouragement.

As the aftermath of the attack continued to unfold on TV that day, Quinlan got a message back from his colleague informing him of details about the case, a development that amazes him to this day.
Of course, the communication flows both ways.
Quinlan remembers another classmate, a Border Patrol agent, who contacted him about an operation that was running guns to Canada from Columbus. “He told me what we should be looking out for, and I put him in touch with the right people here to identify the source.”
Quinlan, Kollar and Davis pointed out other benefits of being National Academy alumni, such as being able to reach out to colleagues to ask about lessons learned from particular cases. Likewise, they might inquire about training practices and, in turn, offer their expertise to other agencies.

More generally, though, they say their experiences at the academy have driven home a fundamental truth.

Said Quinlan: “You find that the concerns we have here in Ohio are the same concerns that law enforcement officers are dealing with everywhere around the world.”