Legendary FBI agent Joe Pistone once told me that “Donnie Brasco,” the film made about his six years undercover with the Bonanno Cosa Nostra crime family, was about 80% accurate.
“For Hollywood, that’s good,” Mr. Pistone said.
Retired FBI agent Jerri Williams’ book, “FBI Myths and Misconceptions” points out the many errors about the FBI in novels, TV and movies.
I knew Ms. Williams back when she was the spokesperson for the FBI in Philadelphia. Her job then was educating the media and the public about the FBI. I reached out and asked her why she wrote the book.
“In January 2016, I started a podcast “FBI Retired Case File Review,” which features interviews with retired agents. During many of the episodes, my former colleagues and I often made comments regarding cliches and misconceptions we saw and heard about the FBI in books, TV, and movies,” Ms. Williams replied.
“Episodes 50 and 100 focused exclusively on what authors and screenwriters sometimes get wrong. As a crime novelist myself, I know that when writers are crafting their books and scripts, the most important thing is the story. However, I was hoping to show writers how to keep the story as true to life as possible and honor the agents who do the job.
“One day it hit me. Those two shows were the foundation for a really cool book debunking FBI myths and misconceptions for those who read, watch, and write crime dramas about the FBI or want to become an FBI agent. There’s a lot out there, and the book has led to me starting a new career as a technical consultant for TV.”
She said the biggest and most detrimental misconception is that the FBI doesn’t play well with others. She noted that this storyline has been used for so long that it’s self-perpetuating.
“Based on books and films, the public and some police officers expect the FBI to come in and act this way. In real life, FBI agents meeting local law enforcement for the first time must deal with those stereotypes and the resulting resentment and suspicion before they can deal with the crime they’re there to investigate,” Ms. Williams said. “In those instances, agents must first break down resistance before they can do their jobs. The Bureau doesn’t ‘take over’ cases from local agencies.”
She noted that the FBI has no hierarchical authority over local and state agencies, and state and local law enforcement agencies are not subordinate to the FBI. She said the FBI has embraced the task force concept since the early 1980s, collaborating with other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for combating violent crime and drug activity, as well as terrorism threats.
“Task forces have proven to be an efficient method for agencies to tackle specific crime and national security concerns together.”
I asked her what she considered a good drama about the FBI and she replied that the Netflix series “Mindhunter” was one of the best TV dramas ever made about the FBI.
“I loved the fully developed characters and the realistic way the FBI agents interact with, their FBI bosses, loved ones and the violent deviant murderers they interview and analyze,” Ms. Williams said. “Unlike other TV shows, movies, and books in the serial killer genre, the two FBI profilers are not portrayed as the lead investigators. For dramatic purposes, their roles are expanded, but that’s a reasonable creative compromise; they are the main characters in the show.
“My only criticism is a minor one. In real-life agents don’t usually walk around the office with their blue FBI raid jackets on, but I spotted a jacket several times during scenes at the Academy cafeteria, no less.”
To set a good example, Ms. Williams said she tries her best to present realistic portrayals of FBI agents and procedures in her own crime novels, “Pay To Play” and “Greedy Givers.”
Although most books featuring FBI characters show them hunting down serial killers or terrorists, she wanted to write a series focusing on white collar cases and showing readers how thrilling that can be.
“My plots are inspired by actual true crime FBI cases. I also wanted to create well-rounded characters with families and flaws. My crime novels follow Special Agent Kari Wheeler, a married mother-of-three, and reveal how her dedication to her job often creates problems at home and triggers issues from her painful past.”
During her FBI career, Jerri Williams specialized in cases targeting major economic crime and corruption. Toward the end of her career, she was appointed as the spokesperson for the FBI in Philadelphia.
Her website, www.jerriwilliams.com, is dedicated to showing the public the true FBI.
• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.