- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

Nearly every graduate of the Washington FBI Citizens’ Academy mentions Joseph Persichini Jr. when talking about the program.

As assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, Mr. Persichini has spent the past five years crafting an image of the agency that he hopes will inspire comfort to counter the general unease that historically has been associated with the bureau.

“He wanted to brand the FBI in a different way than [founding Director J. Edgar] Hoover’s FBI had been branded,” said DC Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Barbara Lang. “This is a special passion of his.”

One of his top projects has been the Citizens’ Academy, an eight-week program in which business and community leaders and members of the media learn about how the agency does its job.

The weekly classes include discussions with agents, walk-throughs of some of the bureau’s most famous cases and examinations of evidence from the cases.

“The goal here is to explain to them how we do business, where we’re successful, where we’ve had failures, where we’ve made mistakes and demystify what we do,” Mr. Persichini told The Washington Times.

The program originated in Phoenix in 1993 after then-Special Agent in Charge Jim Ahearn heard of a similar initiative being used by local police, said Phoenix FBI community relations specialist Jane Bjornstad.

Word spread about the program, and top brass at FBI headquarters encouraged other field offices to host citizens academies.

Past academies hosted by the Washington office have included guest speakers such as agent George Piro, who interrogated former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after he was captured by the U.S. military in 2003.

Participants also have gotten to see up close artifacts such as the .22 caliber revolver John W. Hinckley Jr. used to shoot President Reagan and the Chevrolet Caprice from which serial snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo targeted their victims.

Each session concludes with a trip to the shooting range at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., where participants get to fire weapons used by agents and shoot the FBI’s former standard-issue Thompson .45 caliber submachine gun, better known as the Tommy gun .

Mr. Persichini and FBI staff from other field offices said they usually are well received by students in the academy though initially they have to dispel the Hollywood stereotypes of agents as emotionless “G-men” in black suits and dark glasses who swoop down on criminals without warning.

“They think we’ve got a file on everyone,” Miss Bjornstad said. “Or they think we can just order a wiretap on anyone.”

Marvella Gray, an outreach specialist for the Baltimore field office, said most stereotypes disappear on the first day of class once the students meet agents and other staff members.

“They’re think we’re all stuck up,” Ms. Gray said. “Or they think everybody’s an agent. Some of us are agents, and some of us are professional support.”

Mr. Persichini said he has encountered his fair share of students with misconceptions about the FBI, which became a particular challenge after Sept. 11 as many law enforcement agencies tried to adapt to fighting modern terrorism while avoiding racial and religious profiling.

In the spring of 2003, Mr. Persichini resurrected the Citizens’ Academy, which had been discontinued in 2001 while the office dealt with the fallout of the terrorist attacks, to put a human face on the bureau after its counterterrorism tactics had been scrutinized heavily by Congress.

Graduates of the program say the plan paid off.

“You grow up watching them on TV, and you see them as this supersecret organization that’s always out to get the really bad guys,” said academy alumna Kathy Bailey, principal attorney of the Bailey Law Group. “I feel now that they’re really people more than they were before.”

Rajbir Datta of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the academy gave him a better understanding of how the FBI deals with race and religious discrimination.

Mr. Datta said the information was particularly useful to Sikhs, who since Sept. 11 have faced increased profiling by people who do not understand the religious significance of their turbans and beards.

“I jumped at the opportunity,” he said. “It’s going to shape how I inform my community about how the FBI works.”

The Citizens’ Academy is not the only bridge Mr. Persichini has built to various communities in the Washington area.

Within the Washington office, he has placed an emphasis on community service and networking and has reached out to dozens of local groups, including the DC Chamber, to ensure that he and his agents are in touch with the community.

“We cannot do what we do without the faith and trust of the people we serve,” Mr. Persichini said.

Under the Junior Special Agent program, agents mentor sixth-graders at four elementary schools in the District and one in Fairfax County.

The students learn about crime, drugs, citizenship and physical fitness, among other topics. They have taken field trips to the monuments on the Mall, the Statue of Liberty and the FBI Academy in Quantico, where they took a physical fitness test.

Anne Evans, principal of Savoy Elementary School in Southeast, said she is impressed by the work agents do at the school and jumped at the chance to attend the Citizens’ Academy this spring.

“It was really a re-connection,” said Ms. Evans, a former special agent for the Department of Commerce. “I just wanted to see how the FBI’s role has evolved.”

Also this year, several of Mr. Persichini’s agents rolled up their sleeves to help at J.O. Wilson Elementary in Northeast during D.C. Public Schools’ Beautification Day.

The Washington office also sponsors six summer youth workers each year and holds a Future Agent in Training program for students ages 16 to 18 who are considering careers in the FBI.

Mr. Persichini said he talks with Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier at least once a day and has sent agents to help participate in her signature All Hands on Deck initiative.

The Citizens’ Academy Alumni Association, which has 51 members, also helps keep the Washington office connected to academy graduates and has become an informal recruiting tool.

The Washington office is the country’s top recruiting office and expects to train 906 special agents this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.”



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