WALLINGFORD — After participating in a six-week program, two community members are hoping to demystify the work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and bring its resources of federal law enforcement to work locally.
Darlene Houston, a claims specialist for the Social Security Administration in New Haven, and Tom Laffin, finance associate and IT manager at Franciscan Life Center in Meriden and a Wallingford town councilor, completed the FBI Citizens Academy program at the FBI’s New Haven field office, which ran Sept. 23 to Oct. 28.
The aim of the program, which began in 1993 in Phoenix and spread to other field offices, is to promote a greater understanding of the federal law enforcement agency’s mission and operations.
The Citizens Academy runs through the FBI’s Community Outreach Office.
Citizens Academy participants are nominated for the program — by an FBI employee, somebody who has already been through the program or through self-nomination.
The program looks for participants from various business, religious and civic organizations throughout the state to achieve a balance of people that represent all parts of Connecticut, said JoAnn Benson, community outreach specialist at the FBI’s New Haven field office.
Benson said that Citizens Academy participants typically have an interest in the FBI and want to find out what the agency does. Classes consist of presentations from department representatives to talk about various aspects of the work the FBI does, touching on topics like human trafficking, crisis negotiation, cyber crime, domestic terrorism, white collar crime and civil rights.
The Citizens Academy benefits the FBI when graduates do community outreach, allowing the FBI to build relationships with people locally.
“We get to know these folks,” she said, “and they really end up being people we communicate with after they have graduated.”
The most recent class in New Haven, consisting of about 20 graduates, was supposed to take place in 2020, but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Benson said that Houston and Laffin “were great students in the class, and they were value added members.”
In November Laffin, 41, won re-election to the Wallingford Town Council as a Republican for a sixth term. He’s been vice chairman of the council for four terms.
He said he wants to bring federal resources to local law enforcement, and do community outreach to organizations like the Coalition for a Better Wallingford and the Spanish Community of Wallingford.
He said his intent of doing direct outreach is to meet people where they are and to fill the gap where they might be underserved by other agencies.
“The idea is to improve the image, knowledge and community relationships of the FBI with the different communities, nonprofit organizations — trying to get away from any of the scary stuff,” Laffin said.‘Here to help’
Houston, 56, is a military veteran and worked as a human resource assistant with the Navy ROTC.
While doing a Navy ROTC program at Yale University, the FBI did a presentation, which Houston didn’t attend but it sparked the interest of a friend of hers in another department, who ended up completing the Citizens Academy in 2018.
“She had said it would be a great thing for me, being a veteran,” Houston said, “and I am active in different veteran organizations. She thought that would be good experience for me.”
Houston said the Citizens Academy program met her expectations of learning about the FBI, as well as having a chance to network, make connections and be introduced to people in a different lines of work and from other communities.
The FBI, she said, is “always trying to foster group relationships with the community.”
“Their goal is to educate the community that the FBI is not the enemy, they’re here to help,” she said.
She also was “fascinated” by how the FBI trains local police and then works side by side with police on certain things
“The FBI has certain capabilities on the federal level that the local police do not have,” she said, “so they do work together quite often on some pretty big cases, so that was really fascinating.”
Those who complete the program can join the FBI Citizens Academy Alumni Association, a group that offers classes, trips to other FBI facilities and ways to give back — to do something with the information and access to the FBI’s resources.
Houston said she wants to be involved with helping veterans and the homeless.
“It will be stuff all over Connecticut,” she said. “I’ll be able to just help out, and help foster the relationship between the FBI and the community, as a basic goal.” ACLU concern
Civil liberties advocates, however, have also raised concerns about the FBI’s community programs.
David McGuire, American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut executive director, said the Citizens Academy and similar programs “have a very troubled history, and are part of what we see as a very problematic machine.”
“At best, these are PR campaigns,” McGuire said. “… but at worst these Citizens Academies can and have been used to gather intel on communities, to surveil mainly marginalized communities — communities that, at a particular time, are under the microscope of the federal government, in Black and brown communities, immigrant communities, Muslim communities.”
He added that the FBI “has not been forthright about their intentions for these academies.”
“They’ve called them outreach, but in many cases, it is a well-planned surveillance effort and way to figure out what is happening in certain communities, so we are very wary of it,” McGuire said.
It’s unclear whether the FBI would disclose what information the agency is collecting, retaining and using at an event conducted by a Citizens Academy graduate, or whether questions about immigration or citizenship status would be asked at these types of events.
Charles Grady, FBI New Haven’s public affairs specialist, said that the field office doesn’t comment locally on national issues or perceptions of the FBI.
Graduates of the Citizens Academy are unable to speak on such issues, which “they fail to have all facts about,” Grady said via email Thursday.
“We also do not divulge our investigative techniques or confirm or deny the existence of investigations or results unless necessary for investigative purposes,” he said.
Laffin and Houston said the program is designed to strengthen local communities through outreach.
Houston said that the FBI doesn’t ask its Citizen Academy participants to engage in any surveillance, but that one of the class speakers talked about his work in HUMINT, or human intelligence, which is a means of intelligence gathering through in-person contact.
“It’s actually his job to go out and find the people, maintain relationships, depending on what case he’s working,” she said, adding that local police still do most of the investigation of local crimes.
Laffin, who is planning a lunch event and presentation with FBI representatives to take place in May, said that he wasn’t concerned about the ACLU’s criticism.
“I would certainly hate for an opportunity to be lost out of fear of something like that,” he said. “I think the very focus and mission of the Citizens Academy is to help dispel those fears and conspiracy theories by meeting with the communities directly.”