The FBI is having trouble recruiting new agents, according to a story this week in the Wall Street Journal. A sharp decline in the number of applicants for special agent positions, long considered among the most prestigious in American law enforcement, continued last year the report says, from a peak of 68,500 in 2009 to a mere 11,500 in 2018.
“We had a lot of discussion internally about why the number of special agent applicants were fluctuating so much over the years. We were trying to figure out what’s the story,” Peter Sursi, the man in charge of recruitment for the FBI told the Journal.
According to the FBI, the number of already employed special agents has also dropped somewhat over the last few years, from 14,050 in 2014 to 13,906 in 2017.
At first blush it might seem that a certain polarizing political figure disparaging the honor and the trustworthiness of the FBI on TV and on Twitter every day might play a role in lowered enthusiasm. From special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia, which Donald Trump has frequently called a witch hunt, to his spats with former FBI acting director Andrew McCabe and others, scarcely a week goes by without his impugning the law enforcement agency in some way or another.
It does seem that under the Trump administration, positive impressions of the FBI, at least among Republicans – perhaps the law and order types you might consider drawn to such work – have in fact dropped.
Pew found that while overall support of the FBI has remained positive at 65%, since 2017 “the share of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents with a positive view of the bureau has fallen 16 percentage points, from 65% to 49%”. Similarly, Gallop found that the percentage of Republicans saying the FBI did an “excellent” or “good” job dropped from 62% in 2014 to 49% in 2017.
But the decrease in applications began long before Trump was president, the FBI says. They think the problem is economics not politics.
“Our recruiters never had to actively encourage special agent applicants to apply before,” Sursi told the Journal. “But the labor market is tight for most employers these days, with more jobs than qualified workers. We have to adjust our strategies to be a competitive option.”
Among their efforts has been a sustained social media campaign under the hashtag #UnexpectedAgent. A scroll through the hashtag on Twitter will find FBI departments hoping to open people’s eyes to the possibility of employment with the bureau, particularly women and minorities, who have long been underrepresented. Currently 67% of special agents are white men.
Police forces around the country have also had trouble recruiting of late. The total number of full-time sworn officers has dropped 23,000 since 2013 to about 700,000 according to NPR, who called the officer shortage “a quiet crisis in American policing”.
Among the factors most of these reports cite are a booming job market and strong economy. If people can find interesting and decently-paying work elsewhere, it may just be the case that all of the potential unknowns that come with a career in law enforcement no longer seem worth it. Terry Albury, a 17-year FBI veteran, was sentenced to jail last year after leaking internal documents that unveiled how the agency used racial profiling in counter-terror investigations. In 2017, Al Jazeera reported on documents from the FBI that had been monitoring Black Lives Matter activists. In 2016, a variety of groups demanded Congress investigate the FBI’s spying on activists of all kinds, from anti-pipeline protestors to Occupy Wall Street.
“Nationwide, the FBI is gathering reports on innocent Americans’ so-called ‘suspicious activity’ and sharing it with unknown numbers of federal, state and local government agencies,” the report says.
It may be that an increasing number of Americans are fed up with this type of surveillance. We may occasionally, jokingly, take solace in the presence of our own federal agent looking out for us when we’re lonely – but that doesn’t mean most of us want to be the ones doing the dirty work.