Archive for August, 2013

Matt Bassett is a second-year Master’s in Public Administration candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. He can be reached at bassettm [at] 

Hey, I understand.

You’re an FBI special agent, and your life is not easy.

You’re overworked, understaffed, and underpaid. (Thanks, sequestration.) You’re assigned to an interagency task force where the chain of command is, at best, murky. And you’re not just chasing terrorists, white-collar criminals or bank robbers. You’ve got to fight shape-shifters, hack into people’s memories, dodge bio-weapons, and occasionally even jump between universes. And you hardly ever get a day off.

That’s right- you work for Fringe Division. And with all the other stuff on your plate, now comes this New York Times report. Turns out the Grey Lady recently got hold of a (real-life) FBI Inspection Division document, one that analyzed 17 years’ worth of data on agent-involved shootings. And that article, entitled “Bad Shoots,” throws serious shade on the FBI’s shooting investigation process, implying that the Bureau had a suspiciously strong track record of finding its agents faultless.

And let’s be clear- Fringe Division agents are no strangers to violence. Saving the universe can be a messy business. But now your boss- a guy who can’t even make up his mind about whether he works for the FBI, DHS or DoD– wants answers. How does Fringe Division- a tightly-classified federal task force- stack up against the rest of the FBI when it comes to agent-involved shootings? Do Fringe agents usually comply with the FBI’s policies on the use of force, and what happens when they don’t? In short- how does the government’s relationship with violence change when the fate of not only the nation, but of the entire universe, hangs in the balance?

The short answer is- it changes a lot.

Shootings- Lots Of Shootings

Between 1993 and 2009, the real-world FBI (including agents, FBI-assigned local cops, and other Bureau personnel) were involved in 497 shootings. A plurality [FC1] of these (216) were unintentional, accidental discharges; next up were 188 “intentional” shootings; and the remaining 93 involved agents firing on threatening animals.

The FBI treats each shooting category- animal, intentional and unintentional- as a separate incident, even if multiple agents are involved. Four agents shooting at one armed suspect would count as one incident. But if one of them accidentally discharged their weapon while holstering it, that’d be a whole separate incident- and a separate investigation.

Now, Fringe Division agents have accidental discharges too, and they’ve cooked off a few rounds at animals, too. (Anybody remember the lizard/wasp/bat/lion hybrid? Or the jumbo-sized human cold virus that scurried around on the floor?) But what really matter are intentional shootings- moments when an agent draws their gun, fires at another human being, and means it.

Recently, I reviewed Fringe Division records[1], using FBI shooting criteria as well as the Bureau’s Domestic Investigations & Operations Guide and Manual of Administrative Operations & Procedures. By counting unintentional, intentional and animal shootings, I gathered enough data to permit an apples-to-apples comparison between Fringe Division and the FBI generally. (I also drew on FBI and DOJ regulations for agent usage of force; more on that later.)

With 188 “intentionals” across 17 years, the real-world FBI averages about 11 intentional shoots per year. That’s across an agency that boasts nearly 14,000 gun-toting special agents, spread across 56 big field offices, 380 smaller resident agencies, and 60 overseas liaison offices known as “legats.” So every year, an FBI agent stands a roughly 1-in-1,270 chance of getting into an intentional.

By comparison, Fringe Division is a pretty small shop- approximately two dozen FBI agents, housed in the FBI Boston Field Division yet nominally under the control of DHS. (Imagine the turf wars.) Yet between 2008 and 2012, Fringe Division accounts for a whopping 48 intentional shootings, not to mention three accidentals and three animal shoots. That’s right; on an average year, Fringe Division racks up about as many intentionals as the entire FBI, giving a Fringe agent a 1-in-2 chance of logging an intentional every year.[2][FC2]

Put another way, Fringe agents were involved in more intentional shooting incidents in four years than all the FBI agents in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, Atlanta, Denver, Chicago, Richmond and Charlotte, combined, racked up over 17 years.

The Human Cost

As of August 2013, 57 FBI agents and professional staff have lost their lives in the line of duty, dating back to Edwin C. Shanahan, an FBI agent who tried to singlehandedly stop a Chicago carjacking in 1925. But the business of protecting the universe apparently represents a new degree of on-the-job hazard; shapeshifters, rips in the fabric of the universe,[FC3]  and unspeakable bio-warfare substances are seemingly lurking around every corner.

Based on my count, Fringe Division lost 17 FBI agents in the line of duty between 2008 and 2012. That doesn’t include local law enforcement or outside-agency personnel. Given that the DIOG specifies that the FBI Director will make personal contact with the families of any FBI agent killed on duty, the lethal nature of Fringe Division’s work would be well-known at the highest levels.

Since most of Fringe Division’s work is highly classified, it wouldn’t make headlines, but still, that’s a lot- losing about a third as many agents in four years as the entire Bureau lost in the past 88.

More What You’d Call…Guidelines

So we know a Fringe posting carries the likelihood not only of gunplay, but of significant on-the-job peril, more akin to a war zone than to a regular FBI office. But does this mean they end up breaking the rules to keep themselves and their buddies alive?

In the 497 agent-involved shooting incidents the real-world FBI analyzed, and on which the New York Times reported, only five were characterized as “bad shoots,” all involving violations of the FBI’s Use of Force policy. The FBI’s Domestic Investigations & Operations Guide (Appendix F) includes this document. It’s pretty clear on three key points; you can’t shoot a suspect solely to prevent their escape, you can’t fire solely to disable a moving vehicle, and you can’t fire warning shots.

In contrast, using those same criteria (among the others stated in the policy,) Fringe Division would have racked up- at a minimum- 15 separate dirty shoots in four years, 12 of which came back to Special Agent Olivia Dunham. Dunham fired at fleeing suspects who posed no threat, used her gun to deafen a colleague[3] (protecting him from dangerous sound waves,) intentionally shot out windows and door locks, and even blasted a giant mutant hedgehog while suspended from duty.

And that conservative count of 15 “bad shoots” assumes we don’t include at least nine other shootings involving an FBI professional staff person (Peter Bishop) who was very much not authorized to carry a gun.

…You Did What Now?

If the FBI’s got a lot of regulations governing what happens before and during a shoot, it’s positively awash in rules about what happens afterwards. The Bureau convenes a Shooting Incident Review Team, which is delegated to the local field office about half the time but results in an FBI HQ investigation for the other half. The agent’s supervisor has to submit a written report to Washington within 24 hours (Broyles would be a busy guy) and the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) would have to reach out to the involved agent to offer support (“Agent Dunham again, I presume?”)

The field office would have to obtain assurances, called a “declination of prosecution,” that local authorities wouldn’t charge the agent with assault or murder, and a policy-level group in Washington would have to vet the ultimate report, a process taking, on average, roughly six months.

Whenever injury or death was involved, FBI Headquarters would have to notify the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the DOJ Office of the Inspector General. I suspect both groups would soon be camped out next to the Fringe Division office.

Not to mention the impact on the investigations themselves. The SAC has to “strongly encourage” an FBI shooter to take five days of administrative leave, which could do a lot to a small group like Fringe. The agent in question has to be removed from the case, and reassigned somewhere “not…immediately likely to involve armed confrontations.” How are you going to catch bioterrorists, alternate-universe bad guys or shadowy corporate interests if you’re constantly flying a desk?

What Did We Learn, Kids?

Needless to say, Fringe Division is rarely jammed up over “bad shoots,” and the post-shooting review process seems limited to Agent Broyles patting S/A Dunham on the back and saying, “You okay?” One might then conclude that Fringe is just a TV show and it’s not realistic. That’s boring, and more importantly, that’s not the BlogTarkin way. Rather, these depictions of drastic FBI overuse of force makes us consider what life might look like when we tell our government to save the world, at any cost- and whether what’s left is worth saving.

So when our very existence is on the line, how much violence- not military violence abroad, but police violence at home- is too much? The question wouldn’t likely get answered through public debate; everything Fringe does is cloaked in secrecy, and would almost certainly shroud these “oopsies” from scrutiny. And how could the FBI really be transparent about threats to the fabric of existence without inciting mass panic? Oh, you think terrorists are bad? Look out for holes in the fabric of the universe. Don’t like taking your shoes off in the airport? You’re lucky you didn’t get frozen in quarantine amber and declared legally dead!

It’s tough to argue that the FBI should keep the gloves on, stick to the book, and risk the destruction of the universe. But analyzing Fringe’s track record against the real-world FBI does raise the question of how much further we’d change the rules, even the Constitution, and move that red line, if it meant saving our world. As S/A Broyles tells Olivia Dunham, “There are times when the only choices you have left, are bad ones.”

[1] Read, “mainlined Fringe episodes on Netflix for two weeks straight.”

[2] A note on my methodology. I did not account for a number of shooting incidents that took place in a parallel universe, where the FBI- and presumably, its shooting criteria- no longer existed. FBI agents from “our side” were involved in at least two shootings “over there,” but according to inter-universal Treaty Code 5891(j), agents must abide by each universe’s local laws and regulations, so these would not count. I also did not account for shooting incidents which took place in the far future, after the FBI will have had been disbanded, nor did I include incidents occurring in dream sequences or premonitions. I also excluded the deployment of non-lethal weaponry like tranquilizer darts or tasers.

[3] An “alternate Olivia” in disguise performed this act, but it would probably still end up on Agent Dunham’s record.