Over seven sessions, participants in the Citizens Academy got a crash course on the FBI.
During this season of commencement ceremonies and graduations celebrations, many graduates are donning caps and gowns and festive attire. However, across town I joined 27 community leaders in a unique graduation ceremony––one that required protective eyewear, hearing protection and hard-toe shoes. As a graduate of the 2021 FBI Jacksonville Citizens Academy, I knew I was taking part in a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The FBI Jacksonville Citizens Academy gives community leaders, such as my husband Pastor John Allen Newman and me, a behind the scenes look at FBI operations. Over seven sessions, business, religious, civic and community leaders embarked on a month-long engaging experience that included presentations and demonstrations by FBI personnel. The goal of the program is to improve communication and foster trusted relationships between the community and the FBI. Through open and honest discussion, attendees gain a better understanding of the role of federal law enforcement in the Jacksonville community, and the FBI team learns more about the communities they serve. Candidates for the Citizens Academy are nominated by current and former FBI employees, local law-enforcement and former Citizens Academy graduates. The program occurs annually in Jacksonville, as well as in each of the other 56 FBI field offices across the country.
FBI Jacksonville introduced a hybrid learning model in 2021, which utilized both in-person and virtual sessions. During our first class, we had the rare opportunity to visit and tour the FBI Jacksonville Field Office, where we toured the evidence response team’s facility and learned the various techniques used to collect and preserve evidence. We also visited the gym where agents train, the rooms where victims of crimes are often interviewed and tested the protective gear that FBI Special Agents wear. Future sessions included reviews of FBI operations across North Florida (FBI Jacksonville covers 40 of Florida’s 67 counties) and briefings on local cases. We discussed emerging cybercrimes, domestic terrorism, civil rights, and financial fraud, and learned about the team’s response to major crimes like the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016, where 49 people were killed and 53 others wounded.
Graduation day started with a briefing on weapons of mass destruction and a demonstration from FBI bomb technicians at a training range in St. Johns County. During our graduation ceremony, we were presented with certificates from Special Agent in Charge Rachel Rojas, who encouraged us to stay vigilant and engaged with law enforcement in the future. Overall, I found the experience quite stimulating and informative. Once completed, graduates in good standing are eligible to join the FBI Citizens Academy Alumni Association and serve as ambassadors for the FBI in the community.