Role Playing with the FBI

By Allison Brennan

Stephen is jealous. He told me so on Facebook.

On Thursday I took the day off from writing (the day—not the night!) and participated in drills with the FBI. FBI Swat has a training program for agents and local law enforcement, and generally has a good mix of cops. The training program is for established and new agents to improve on their tactical procedures and includes class work, lectures, and drills. The more training a cop receives opens up more opportunities down the road for advancement or special assignments, so these type of programs and generally popular.

And I got to play this time!

The call (via email) went out on Tuesday asking for volunteers to play bad guys during tactical drills. Of course I replied, “Pick me!” On Thursday I headed over to the former McClellan Air Force Base for my assignment. I parked, so a bunch of firefighters training, and went that way . . . it was the wrong way, but a chivalrous fireman escorted me to the opposite end of the structure to where the feds run their drills.

I met up with Brian Jones, the FBI SWAT Senior Team Leader and Trainer (whose motto is “Failing to Train = Training to Fail.” I’d first met Brian when I participated in the FBI Citizens Academy last year. He let me blow up stuff, so he’s one of my favorite people. He’s also a fan—I gave him and his wife a book last year, and they have since bought my backlist.

The set up is multiple stations where teams of eight are run through life-like scenarios in order to improve their tactical response to common situations. The four stations this day were the “House of Pain” which is a hostage situation; traffic stops (which I believe is the most dangerous for law enforcement); searching; and serving warrants (my drill!)

I was able to observe all the stations except the hostage drill because I couldn’t see it from my vantage point on the catwalk during our “break.” But I learned tremendously from the other drills.

The guns involved all discharge paint bullets (I’m sure there’s a technical name for these, but I forget) and we’re all required to wear protective gear because being hit by the projectile hurts. There were two air force MPs running the drills with us, and they took the brunt of the hits. Both had torn shirt sleeves and bruises by the end of the day!

The searching drill—for lack of a better name because I missed the initial set-up—had a team going into a house searching for a known felon. There were two or three people hiding in the “house” and the primary purpose was to teach the team how to expeditiously and properly search the facility and stay safe. Whenever cops go into a residence with minimal intelligence, they put themselves at risk. So the drill was to give them a practical experience. Each team went through each drill twice under different scenarios (for example, the role players may be told by the trainer to be compliant in one drill, but in the next resist, or hide—or in one drill be unarmed, but in the next be armed.)

One drill had a girl hiding in a couch hide-a-bed. Just a month before, the trainer had been involved in executing a search warrant where two prostitutes hid in a hide-a-bed for three HOURS before they were found. The room they were in had been declared clear—but obviously it wasn’t. In another drill, a bad guy was hiding behind a door that was open. There was another suspect in the open room, who was dealt with appropriately, but the agents had intelligence that there were two men in the facilities, so they went down the hall to search the last room . . . then the door slowly opens and the “bad guy” (Air Force Raven Jeff) opened fire. (NOTE: I learned all about the Ravens, a special security unit in the Air Force that has only been around for about ten years. It’s going in a book someday . . . )

Every team was caught with multiple injuries (probably fatalities) before the bad guy was taken (killed.)

I was up on the catwalk and I couldn’t see the bad guy, but I could see that there was space behind the door and I wanted to shout, “Look behind the door!” Don’t these guys ever go to movies? LOL.

In the traffic stops, there were multiple scenarios, but each ended in a shooting, and as I watched I couldn’t help but remember several high-profile traffic stops that ended up with cops dead.

Every drill we ran had elements taken from real-life tactical situations, so these weren’t just classroom fantasy scenarios.

Okay, now the fun part—my drill.

My group had four role players. In Drill #1, the agents had an arrest warrant but not a search warrant so they had to talk themselves into the house. In Drill #2, they had a search warrant.

I played the belligerent, white trash wife. My “husband” Larry was a drunk known pedophile. The arrest warrant was for “Billy” who was a pimp who transported an underage prostitute across state lines (a federal crime.) The prostitute was played by an 18-year-old- FBI intern, and “Billy” was really another Air Force MP.

The cops had to talk their way by me, and I didn’t want to let them in. My orders were to make them “work” for it, so they had to try different approaches. I made the first team really work for it, and it was fun. In the middle of my demanding ID, complaining, not wanting to let anyone into my house, and asking if they wanted Larry, my good-for-nothing husband (using appropriate profanity along the way), Larry would come out of the back and start swearing and stumbling and ordering me to shut the effing door. I’d push him and tell him not to effing tell me what to do (which is probably what I would do if my husband acted the same way—before I packed my bags and left. Hmm, but if I knew he was a pedophile, I’d probably be on my way to prison because he’d be dead or castrated. But I digress.)

It was usually this point that I’d swing open the door and tell the cops to go ahead and do whatever they damn well pleased, while still fighting with Larry—they had to deal with a domestic situation before the primary arrest warrant could be served. I was cuffed, searched, and questioned about who else was in the house and who had guns.

The second situation, Larry and I were in bed (asleep!) and the cops had a search warrant. We didn’t get up—they had to break in. And then search, not knowing how many people were in the house. This was a little scarier than the first scenario, and I was also cuffed, made to lie on the floor of my “bedroom” because of the unstable situation in the hall.

I learned later that our drill was also a deadly force drill. In the second scenario, “Billy” came out of hiding after the prostitute escaped from him, and he had a gun to his head.

Do you shoot him?

The primary exercise is to help cops learn and understand deadly force policy, but to ascertain their personal deadly force policy in different situations.

Do you shoot a man with a loaded gun to his head?



Because action beats reaction every time.

During the last rotation, the trainer told the group that every time they ran the scenario where the agents were told not to shoot until the muzzle moved from the suspects head, an agent was injured (shot with a paint bullet.) Every single time. Because the suspect has the intent and “inside knowledge” so to speak, and the agent is reacting to the movement, which delays response.

The best part of the scenarios was listening to the trainer after the drill go through and tell them what they did right and wrong. For example, one team didn’t cuff or search me in my first scenario, which puts a potentially dangerous people (if I had a gun hidden on me) behind their line.

They only do this once a year in my hometown, and I hope they invite me back next time! I might be willing to get shot then.

What’s valuable for me, as a civilian, is to see first hand the pressure and split-second decisions that cops have to make in the field. It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, but when things are happening now and an innocent life is in danger, they have to rely on their intel and their training to obtain the best possible outcome.

I didn’t think anything could beat the morgue, but the SWAT drills surpassed it by far. And I can hardly wait to go to Quantico this fall.

For me, as an author, I gain a lot of insight not only into practical situations, but into the people involved. It’s invaluable.  And a hell of a lot of fun.

24 thoughts on “Role Playing with the FBI

  1. Brett Battles

    Stephen’s not the only one who is jealous!! How absolutely awesome. If they ask you if you have any friends who would also be willing to volunteer next give them my name! I’d drive up in a heartbeat.

    So cool. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, my god – I always feel like such a GIRL around Allison. I think I write supernatural just so I don’t have to deal with guns and hardware.

    But even I’m a little jealous of this field trip.

    However – I would have searched the hide-a-bed. Hah!. We used to fold my sister up in one of those to freak unsuspecting friends out, so I know what a good hiding place it is.

  3. Karen in Ohio

    Allison, do you have to go through the FBI Citizens Academy in order to be involved? And how often do they run those? Do you have to be near Quantico to participate?

    This sounds like great fun. And it occurs to me that asking a novelist to role play is pretty danged smart.

  4. Allison Brennan

    Brett, I think LA has a citizens academy. You and Stephen can take it together! You also get to go to the police gun range and receive instruction from the firearms trainer, plus get invited back every year for alumni day. The tactical training program moves around to different locales, so they go in lots of different places, usually big cities because there’s a greater chance of the FBI and local law enforcement to work together on task forces, and having that cross/dual training experience is hugely helpful.

    Alex, yes, you should be jealous . . . ha ha. Writing supernatural thrillers doesn’t mean you don’t have to deal with law enforcement. One of the situations that has arisen in my book as I write it is that witchcraft isn’t illegal. So if you have a coven practicing black magic and summoning demons, you can’t arrest them or kill them. This has caused a huge conflict between two of my characters (a sheriff and a demonologist.) And I have an idea for a future storyline in this series using existing laws and the criminal process. But from a personal perspective, putting yourself in the cops shoes gives you a whole new appreciation for what they do.

  5. Allison Brennan

    Absolutely check it out Julie! I never knew about the citizens academy until I called the PIO about questions for one of my books.

    Karen, I don’t know if you have to be a graduate, but that’s how I found out about it and all the role players, except for the Air Force guys, were graduates. They might require it because I went through a background check to take the academy, so I’m already vetted. You don’t have to be near Quantico. There are many regional offices who have them, generally the larger offices. San Francisco has one, I know. I’m in Sacramento. A friend of mine on another loop took it in another state (I just don’t remember where she lives!) Call the PIO and ask. You need to be invited by the PIO or a graduate needs to recommend you because there are limited spaces. Your occupation or volunteer work matters–meaning, they want a good mix of people they could or have worked with. In my class, there was a bank VP (the FBI works closes with banks on mortgage fraud, white collar crimes, bank robberies, etc); a labor lobbyist/attorney; a Moslem church leader (okay, I know they don’t call them churches, but I don’t know the word); a realtor; the director of the Children’s Receiving Home who take in abused or in jeopardy children; a guy who works with the FBI and cops in designing concealed lights in vehicles and retrofitting undercover vehicles; a chamber president; a deputy DA; and more. There were 20 of us.

    I think novelists make great role players because we’re naturally wired to run through different possibilities. But I’m sure I benefited just as much as the cops who were practicing!

  6. karen from mentor

    G R E A T story. Have you come down from the adrenaline rush yet? The most cop interaction I ever had as a civilian was safety town with my tot…. Thanks for sharing.

    And Alex??? you said "glad I don’t have to deal with guns and hardware."…..hmmmm….I’ve seen some hard ware in your books….I think you’re being modest.

  7. Janet Rudolph

    This was absolutely fascinating. Never heard of the Ravens before, but as you pointed out it’s a relatively new group. Do you think they were thinking of Poe? Difficult and fun. Look forward to hearing more in future. in a book?

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz


    Yes, Brett – LET’S DO IT!!!

    I think the FBI hostage training should be an annual Murderati retreat, like a yearly high school reunion for Murderati. Now, wouldn’t that be cool.

    I WILL NOT play the young female prostitute or the belligerent alcoholic wife.

  9. Fran

    I got to be the hostage in a local police department SWAT exercise when I lived in New Mexico. It was grueling in a lot of ways — I was "held" for seven hours, and the only reason it ended then was that no one had cleared my being away from work with my boss and I had to go to work directly from the scene — but I learned a lot about how unpredictable and emotional situations lke that can become.

    And then, of course, there was the training session I was peripherally involved in where one of the trainers was killed.

    Still, it’s something that I think more people should be involved with, if only to find out how dedicated our police and FBI forces are. Besides, it sounds like you had a blast, Allison!

  10. Allison Brennan

    Hi Karen, don’t knock safety town! LOL. πŸ™‚

    Janet, the Ravens are a special task force of the Air Force, new, and there’s less than 1700 of them. They’re not quite Ranger level (in terms of training) but they’re trained more extensively than, say, regular MPs. It’s apparently a grueling four-to-six weeks (I can’t remember what he said) and you get beat up a lot. I asked, literally? Answer: yes. They are responsible for security of aircraft that land in insecure areas or airports. No one gets on the plane πŸ™‚ . . . They also transport military prisoners for the US and our allies. The guy I spoke with has been all over the world, travels on two assignments a month, the rest of the month is a "desk" job, though he says he’s always out training others or taking extra assignments like the FBI tactical training.

    I definitely want to write about them. As he was talking, I was thinking of how to integrate a Raven character into my Lucy Kincaid series.

    You know, Dusty and Stephen, jealousy is one of the seven deadly sins . . . just saying πŸ˜‰

    I don’t know, Stephen, you might make a good underage prostitute, considering you’re writing about a sex addict. It would show great acting talent. πŸ™‚ . . . but if you insist, you can be the drunk pedophile.

    Yes, Fran, I had a blast! What a tragedy about the trainer being killed, though. That’s awful. I want to be involved in a hostage training session sometime. A friend of mine who’s now a paramedic was involved in one as part of her training with the fire department (here the paramedics are hired by the fire departments, not independent contracted companies.) It was a school shooting situation and she was the hostage, shot in the leg and incapacitated and in the room with one of the shooters–who was the real-life hostage negotiator. She got to hear everything go through him. She said it was fun and educational, but nearly shit herself when SWAT rushed in in full gear and pointed a gun at her–even though there were safety guns and loaded with paint bullets, it was a primal reaction of fear. Amazing. But I learn the most listening to the "debriefing" when the individual agents explained why they did what they did and what they were thinking. The air force guy called it I think "mental muscle" essentially action without thought based on extensive training. There isn’t a lot of time to think in tense situations and lack of intel is one of the key problems facing law enforcement, which is why drills are necessary.

  11. Louise Ure

    What a great outing, Allison. My head would have been spinning with plot and character ideas.

    And that advice about whether to shoot or not to shoot ("Because action beats reaction every time.")? That’s great advice for plotting, too.

  12. Pari

    That sounds like such an incredible experience. I want to do the Citizen’s police academy as soon as I’m in NM long enough to go to all the classes. Your excursion sounds like it was several rungs higher on the ladder.

  13. Allison Brennan

    Louise, I told the SAC how one of his agent’s presentations at the academy led to the backstory of my heroine in my upcoming CUTTING EDGE. While the practical information about domestic terrorism–and anarchists in particular–was valuable in my story, it was the people behind the actions that really interested me. I didn’t know why the real-life person decided to turn FBI informant, and my mind started playing the what if game until I came up with my heroine in the book.

    Pari, all it takes is making the contact and going to the class. Then you have lots of opportunities open up. I’ve missed some because of time and deadlines, but I try to go to as many as I can–like the Unabomber presentation given by the retired agent who arrested Kazcynski.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    My son just got back from one of those training sessions and had photos (a pro was shooting the exercises). It was amazing just to see that and hear his stories. I’d love to be a volunteer one day.

    Am also in the SO JEALOUS category.

  15. Karen in Ohio

    Allison, thanks for the detailed answer. It sounds not only fun, but seriously thought-provoking, too, on so many levels.

  16. Allison Brennan

    Jill, you’re sleeping with your research πŸ™‚ hahahaha . . .

    Toni, you gave birth to your research hahahaha. I hope you’ll share the pics! Brian took pics but I haven’t seen them yet.

    You’re welcome Karen!

  17. Drunk Larry

    If ever I was going to have a belligerent, white trash wife, you would be my first choice. I too had a very fun time, and walked away with a different outlook about how dangerous their jobs really are.

    Going through the Citizens Academy was a very rewarding experience, but I will be talking about last Thursday’s experience for the rest of my life.

    I can’t wait to start reading your work.

    Drunk Larry

  18. Allison Brennan

    Hey, it’s my drunk pedophile play-husband! Heard you got shot in the ass during a traffic stop . . . sorry I missed that. πŸ™‚ Billy reported that out of fifty hits, only five landed on his flak jacket. The bulk were on his left side, and he has plenty of bruises. Makes me kind of glad I turned Brian down when he told me it was my last opportunity to be shot . . .

  19. JoleneWade31

    If you are in the corner and have got no money to move out from that point, you would require to take the loans. Because it should help you definitely. I get car loan every time I need and feel myself OK just because of that.


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