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Gunning for some fun, skills and insight

Mock maneuvers in the ATF's Citizens' Academy produce both bumbles and serious lessons in agents' work, whether it's surveillance or shooting a foe before he shoots you. Lectures add to the mix.

August 07, 2009|Scott Glover

Roving through the halls of the Glendale Galleria one night earlier this year were about a dozen wannabe cops trying, with varying degrees of ridiculousness, to be covert.

I know, because I was one of them.

I was there as a student in an eight-week Citizens' Academy held by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, better known as the ATF.

Our mission that night was to covertly observe a gun transaction involving real ATF agents posing as bad guys and to discreetly tail them to their cars. My fellow students and I had been told at our "pre-operational briefing" that it would go down in or around a cafe on the ground floor of the mall.

My partner and I were supposed to call our "team leader" on his cellphone and give him a detailed description of the suspects once they arrived.

Suddenly, there they were: a long-haired dude in a Hawaiian shirt and couple of other guys in their 20s, looking nervously about.

Even though it was just an exercise, the adrenaline began to kick in. My partner, a paralegal in the Los Angeles city attorney's office, scribbled down the suspects' descriptions.

Eager to deliver the intel, I tried our team leader on his cell. No answer. Again and again I tried, but the result was the same.

I thought of putting out a call on the brick-size Motorola radio we'd been issued earlier that evening for use in the exercise. But I'd inadvertently changed the channel and couldn't remember which one we were supposed to be using.

Police work, it seemed, was harder than it looked.

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As a reporter covering federal law enforcement in Los Angeles, I enrolled in the class to learn more about the ATF and what its agents do. (OK, I'd also heard there might be some automatic weapons involved -- there were, it turned out -- but more on that later).

Though I've been writing about law enforcement for years, I knew far less about the agency than I did its better-known cousins, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration. My education began on a Wednesday night in January with a lengthy lecture by ATF historian Barbara Osteika. She started with Eliot Ness, the hard-charging Prohibition agent whose battles with bootleggers and the mob in Chicago 80 years ago inspired the book, movie and television series "The Untouchables."

Back then, it was all about booze. Over the years, though, Congress expanded the role of the bureau. The National Firearms Act of 1934 placed restrictions on so-called gangster guns and charged the ATF with enforcing the law.

The killings in the 1960s of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr. -- all with guns -- would lead to tightened restrictions on firearms nationwide and enhance the ATF's role as "the gun police."

The agency was targeted for elimination in the early 1980s under President Reagan, but was granted a reprieve when it was able to trace the gun used by would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr. in less than 16 minutes, Osteika said.

Today, the bureau's 2,600 agents handle everything from arson to bombings to counterfeit cigarettes and bootlegged booze.

The Citizens' Academy, said John Torres, the ATF's top agent in Los Angeles, was created to "let people know what we're doing and what we're about."

The academy, which is free, is offered twice a year. Each participant must be at least 21 years old, live in Southern California and be "a civic, religious or community leader."

Despite this last requirement, I received an e-mail in February letting me know that I'd been accepted.

--

My 35 classmates included several lawyers and support staff from the city attorney's office, some film and television producers, a Superior Court judge, a real estate attorney, an aspiring ATF agent and one very gung-ho looking insurance agent.

The course was equal parts classroom lecture and in-the-field training, though both were but a taste of what real prospective agents are said to undergo.

To the extent that the Citizens' Academy was aimed at community outreach, from what I could see there was an element of preaching to the choir:

Most of my classmates seemed either to have ties to law enforcement through their work or to already be ardent supporters of the profession. Several had taken similar courses offered by the FBI or local police departments.

Christy Evans, 61, of Burbank, for example, had volunteered with her local police and fire departments before completing the FBI's Citizens' Academy. Plain-spoken and energetic, Evans volunteers teaching school-age children how to respond when "the rat bastard predators get ahold of you."

What she was looking forward to with the ATF program, she said, was tactical training the FBI didn't offer, such as the surveillance operation at the Galleria.

--

Spread out across a table at the Eagle's Nest shooting range in the Angeles National Forest was a cache of weapons, including a fully automatic AK-47, a .223-caliber assault rifle, a Thompson submachine gun and a Walther PPK, the favorite handgun of Ian Fleming's 007.

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