Anyone who knows me knows that I never pass up an opportunity to make fun of the FBI. Those same folks also know that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the agency. One of my best friends is a Special Agent and despite the fact that he is a genius, I relentlessly poke fun at him anyway. The FBI is prominently featured in many novels, movies, and television news segments. That’s not too surprising given the agency has a well known reputation and it’s hard to miss them on the evening news (thanks to their snazzy windbreakers emblazoned with their initials). But I have encountered a number of authors who don’t fully understand the role of the FBI in criminal investigations. Recently, an author friend had me read a scene they were working on in which the FBI was investigating an officer involved shooting. They were under the impression that the FBI investigated all officer involved shootings. So I thought it might be helpful to discuss when the FBI is actually involved in a case. Keep in mind that just because the FBI has jurisdiction in a crime doesn’t necessarily mean they will work the investigation. More on that in a bit.
To understand when the FBI is called in you need to understand a little about jurisdiction. Keep in mind that this issue can get very complicated so I’ll try to keep this as simple as possible. The FBI is a Federal agency within the United States of America. I find it easiest to think of jurisdiction in two broad categories; property (location) and statutes (laws). The FBI has jurisdiction on federal properties like buildings, federal public lands (BLM, forrest, National Parks), and Indian Reservations (more on Indian Reservations in a later post). Also included are “special” jurisdictions that don’t fit into a “normal” definition. These include places like airplanes crossing over various states (you don’t have to prove which state airspace the crime occurred in), cruise ships, and potentially even the Space Shuttle (before the program was eliminated that is). In theory, any felony and many misdemeanors on these properties could (would) be investigated by the FBI. There are two big exceptions however. If another Federal law enforcement agency has primary jurisdiction or mission mandates over the crime. For example, the post office has its own branch that investigates mail fraud. Customs investigates smuggling and the Secret Service investigates counterfeiting and major fraud. Then there are certain crimes that may involve multiple agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Other federal reservations that are unique are military bases. See my interviews with an ARMY CID agent or NCIS Agent to get a better idea of those jurisdictions.
The second category to consider is the statute. The United States is a Federalist system comprised of Federal, state, and local laws. The FBI is a federal agency and primarily concerns itself with crimes defined under federal statutes. They won’t be responding to the average stolen vehicle. So some of the more common crimes you may be familiar with are bank robbery (FDIC insured banks), kidnapping, public corruption, racketeering and organized crime, etc. Additionally, the FBI also deals with acts of terrorism, counter-terrorism, and a few other things I won’t mention.These activities have risen dramatically since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York City. As more and more agents are preoccupied with those important tasks, local agencies are picking up the slack by handling a larger portion of things like bank robberies and kidnappings (these crimes are also against state and local law).
As if that wasn’t complicated enough the FBI can be called for assistance on any major crime. Usually these are mass murders or serial murders that may or may not cross state boundaries. It is important to recognize however that the FBI must be invited into the case by the local agency unless there is a clear violation of federal law (such as an act of terrorism). The FBI can’t just storm onto any old homicide and take over just because they want to. More importantly, the FBI doesn’t have a dispatch center like you might find in a police department. 911 calls don’t go to the FBI switchboard and FBI agents aren’t driving around “on patrol” waiting for a radio call. Every agent I know is backlogged with major cases and doesn’t have time to investigate local crimes even if they wanted to (and they don’t). Besides, that’s what the local police are for.
So if you plan to have the FBI investigating crimes in your novel you need to make sure that one of the following occurs. They are invited in on something major, the crime is covered under federal statutes, and that it occurs on some kind of federal property. Now, the FBI does provide a tremendous amount of mutual aid to state and local authorities via units like their crime lab, Behavioral Analysis, and Hostage Rescue to name a few but, they don’t “take over” the investigation in the process. If you are writing a typical crime novel then the FBI characters will probably be acting in these capacities (like profiling a serial killer) and not as the lead agency. Don’t be afraid to insert FBI characters, just know it may be a supporting role. Keep in mind that this is a very basic explanation of when the FBI may respond to investigations. In reality, circumstances may dictate exceptions to the rule. If you are working on a specific scene post a question and I’ll try to clarify based on your specifics.
Have you ever wondered how evidence is submitted and processed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This link will take you to the current (2007) Handbook of Forensic Services. This is the guide published by the FBI for state and local law enforcement agencies. It is a compilation of their policies and guidelines for submitting evidence. It can be pretty dry reading but you may find some of the information useful. If nothing else, it may give you some insight as to the types of evidence handled by the FBI laboratory.