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Citizens academy at Homeland Security Investigation unit seeks to build public trust

In this June 5, 2015,  photo, the Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington, D.C. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)
In this June 5, 2015, photo, the Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington, D.C. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)
By Fred Willenbrock For The Spokesman-Review

SEATTLE – A few seconds passed in silent darkness after the team leader whispered over the radio, “Make the arrest.”

Flashing lights on unmarked cars lit the scene. A dozen agents with guns drawn moved from cover to surround the suspect. He was handcuffed and the bag of counterfeit prescription drugs he sold the undercover agent seized.

“Good job,” said Brendan Shelley, supervisory special agent of Homeland Security Investigations, as his students put down their plastic handguns and rifles. The suspect, also a special agent for this teaching exercise, was unhandcuffed. The 12 students were participating in the first citizens academy offered by the federal agency in Seattle.

Officials from HSI, a branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, hope this experience and others during the seven evening classes will begin changing public perceptions about the agency and its policing role. The HSI Seattle field office is responsible for investigations in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska. Major satellite offices are located in Spokane, Portland and Blaine, with smaller ones in other cities.

As polarizing immigration issues prompt criticism of ICE, including demonstrations at offices and local law enforcement agencies distancing themselves from the controversies, HSI leaders have turned to community outreach. They want to show how they enforce more than 400 federal laws, most of which have little to do with immigration.

The first class was made up primarily of men and women employed in private security and others from nonprofit groups assisting victims of human trafficking. Members of this first class had applied to the academy after being nominated by a special agent. After review of applications and a background check, they were accepted.

HSI Seattle officials said they plan to invite people from all walks of life to future academies, including elected officials and community leaders.

“The citizens academy was a great opportunity for us to open the curtain and demystify what it is we do, how we do it, and most importantly why we do it,” said Eben Roberts, acting special agent in charge of HSI Seattle. “It’s my hope that we were able to convey that in the class over the seven weeks.”

Students impressed

“I didn’t know what to expect” of the academy before applying, said Dulce Zamora, 28. She said she has been working on issues pertaining to the Hispanic community since earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She is now senior anti-trafficking advocate at the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network.

She has contact with HSI agents while assisting trafficking and forced labor victims but never knew the scope until these classes.

“I was really lucky to have this experience,” Zamora said. “I see the hard work they (HSI agents) do.”

She believes HSI is an important part of the collaboration of agencies need to help victims.

The undercover agent the night of the faux arrest was Gerald Chang, 31, an information security analyst with Costco Wholesale.

Chang spent eight years in the military and then went back to school to study cybersecurity, including data protection for companies. Like others in the class, he had attended an FBI citizens academy. Chang also heads a group in the Seattle area that encourages business collaboration with government security agencies.

“I had a multi-interest, one for my work to see how to interact with them and partner more, and one for my community involvement,” Chang said. “I found them to be very open about information sharing. Other agencies are not.”

“It was a positive experience,” said Candice Lampe, Starbucks Coffee Co. program manager for security and compliance.

She noted the agents didn’t push unproductive political issues during their classes. Instead, they had a good balance of hands-on training and lectures.

Lampe, 41, served seven years in the military police before starting a career in security in the private sector.

Days of class

The night of the faux arrest, agents in fluorescent vests gave each student an assignment: surveillance, arrest, undercover and team leader.

This was the culmination of a practice investigation with a script written by agents that had started during the second class held at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. There they had joined Customs and Border Protection agents behind the walls of the international flights baggage claim area to question a woman supposedly caught with counterfeit prescription drugs.

Another night class was held at the Port of Seattle to search shipping containers. They were introduced to another HSI partner: the U.S. Coast Guard. Before the arrest, the class read the arrest warrant and made a detailed operation plan.

During the classes, they also received instruction and policies regarding weapons used by HSI agents, arrest techniques, use-of-force procedures and cyberforensics. The final class introduced them to the complex legal system involving state and federal laws, including immigration, human rights, human smuggling and trafficking, and the smuggling of narcotics, weapons and other types of contraband. Agents also investigate child exploitation, trade fraud, financial crimes, gangs, cybercrime, identity theft, document fraud and export violations.

The class learned that almost any crime involving importing or exporting as well as a threat to national security is within HSI jurisdiction. Since most crimes and national security threats are now transnational in nature, HSI is equipped to combat these threats due to its unique immigration and customs authorities granted them by Congress.

The counterterrorism class started dramatically with an agent bringing in a rocket launcher confiscated from smugglers. He later told about a Seattle-area special metal manufacturer being approached by foreign nationals who intended to ship the metal to Iran for their nuclear program. He outlined an outreach program that helped agents get the initial tip from the company that led to undercover operations and arrests.

Others told about hours viewing child pornography online and posing as customers to try and identify victims and locations. They also use their international resources to track suspects coming and going from the country. Seattle is one of the leading offices for child pornography arrests in the nation.

Cybersecurity and the dark web are growing areas of investigation for HSI. As technology changes, so do the transnational crimes as HSI has cases with bitcoin transfers involving criminal activity.

Counterfeiting everything from prescription drugs to clothing is a billion-dollar criminal enterprise. On the night of one class, agents left to work with a task force at a Seahawks football game. They were investigating a counterfeit sports souvenir ring traveling around the country.

HSI doesn’t release regional staffing numbers, but about 8,000 employees including 6,000 special agents are spread equally among the 30 operational areas. They also have 68 offices in 51 countries.

“In my biased opinion, HSI is the best-kept secret in law enforcement,” Roberts said. “We’re very passionate about the work we do on the public’s behalf, and frankly our yearly enforcement statistics will show that.”

He said nationally HSI made more arrests and seizures of guns, drugs, money and contraband than any other law enforcement agency in the country.

HSI history

“It’s important that the public knows, particularly in a climate where our mission is often misunderstood, what HSI does and does not do,” Roberts said.

On the first night of class, Roberts promised not to use acronyms that confuse the public but within minutes he smiled and began rattling them off.

ICE was founded in 2003 as part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through a merger of U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Customs Service. Also under DHS is Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which includes the Border Patrol. The basic plan was for CBP to secure the borders and ICE the interior of the country.

ICE has two primary but distinct operational law enforcement components: Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) and HSI.

“HSI is the primary investigative arm of the DHS and is a vital U.S. asset in combating criminal organizations illegally exploiting America’s travel, trade, financial and immigration systems,” Roberts said. “When it comes to enforcing immigration laws and removal of those who are illegally present, that is what ERO is for.”

Both ICE agencies have separate offices in a Seattle skyscraper where this summer several hundred people including a city councilwoman demonstrated outside. They were protesting deportations and enforcement of President Trump’s aggressive immigration policy.

Classes were held in that building in a large conference room with flat-screen televisions used to present information. The pictures of famous cases involving the Seattle office lined the walls. There were the familiar media shots of a mass of special agents with “police” in large letters over “HSI” on their backs surrounding suspects. Agents said they realize that everybody knows what the word police stands for but not HSI; they don’t want to leave any doubt when on the scene.

The agents have various work, military and education backgrounds.

Johnson, 43, was a certified public accountant working for an international accounting firm on the East Coast. He decided to change careers and became an HSI special agent, advancing to management.

Most had transferred from other offices around the country. They all graduated from the ICE Academy Complex at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. Training is ongoing for them. Each special agent must pass firearms qualification tests every three months.

Spokane agents

HSI agents work throughout the Seattle office’s four-state responsibility area and sometimes in other countries. Some agents and support staff live in cities like Spokane.

Johnson said they hope to have citizen academies in these other cities in the future. They should have the next one in Seattle this spring.

Throughout the seven weeks of class, agents emphasized working with other agencies, from sharing information to making arrests. While at the airport, the class was introduced to one group called BEST (Border Enforcement Security Task Force).

A few days after the class ended, BEST seized several properties in the Seattle area used by members of an international drug trafficking organization. The four properties were identified as part of an international criminal investigation that lasted several years.

“Our law enforcement partnerships can sometimes be confusing, particularly because there are over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States,” Roberts said. “In this day and age we’ve gotten to the point where we all have limited resources, so we tend to work together very well. A specific agency may take lead if they have more information or have been working a case longer, but it’s generally done in a collegial way.”

HSI does do work-site audits to determine if workers are documented. And if in the course of these and other investigations they find undocumented individuals or others who have broken other laws, they will make arrests. They will make immigration arrests if they are investigating any criminal activity.

During the final class, Shelley said there is a tremendous amount of stress and public scrutiny associated with the job. There aren’t many times when an HSI agent gets the reward of doing something that reinforces why they chose the job.

For him, that moment was arresting a man who was impersonating ICE agents. He was threatening undocumented immigrants in the Seattle area with arrest and deportation so he could extort money.

Shelley said they gained the trust of the victims and, with their help, caught the suspect in California. They arrested him and seized enough money to return everything the victims had lost.

“That was a good day,” Shelley said.

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