Law enforcement internship programs: insights from an FBI Honors Intern.
The appeal of such programs to students seems obvious. They jump from tedious book work and routine assignments as regular college students into a world that impacts the issues they watch on the national news. But, the value of internship programs is not one-sided by any means. They can provide distinct benefits to all involved parties. (1)
BENEFITS OF AN INTERNSHIP PROGRAM
Aspects of a law enforcement internship program will vary depending on the participating students and the structure of the respective venture. However, any college student, as well as agencies of all functions, sizes, and budgets, can expect to derive a variety of benefits.
Law Enforcement Agencies
One of the most enticing elements of an internship program to many law enforcement organizations is the fact that interns often work for free. Several reasons account for this phenomenon. First, interns generally receive college credit for their time and appreciate that sponsoring agencies are doing them a favor by facilitating participation. In addition, many internships, especially for first-time participants, are designed as exploratory experiences, meaning that students play an observatory role and contribute little to the actual "work" of the agency. However, it may prove necessary to compensate interns in certain cases, such as where students complete tasks normally delegated to paid employees or possess certain critical skills desired by the host organization or in those programs with a highly competitive selection process.
Internship programs also function as a partnership between academic institutions and law enforcement agencies. As such, they often provide the foundation for the host organization to network within the academic community. Academic institutions can frequently provide advanced education and training opportunities for law enforcement officials, as well as access to and participation in important research that impacts police practices. Such partnerships inevitably enhance career opportunities for officers and scholars.
Finally, the programs allow law enforcement agencies to identify students who have an interest in their organizations; evaluate their potential as prospective employees; and determine if, and in what capacity, they may later fit into the departments. By providing interns with an unbiased, firsthand experience, both the student and the agency can decide if future employment would be in their respective interests. Internships also serve as an exceptional resource because participants tend to promote the law enforcement agency through informal channels upon returning to their academic institutions. By discussing their experiences with peers and colleagues, interns provide a unique avenue to share insights about an organization with a large segment of potential applicants.
Many college and university undergraduate degree programs view an internship as the hallmark experience of a student's curriculum. Internships provide students with an unparalleled real-world experience and allow them to more effectively explore and formulate career goals. Students also can apply what they have learned in the classroom and discover the interplay of academic knowledge and practical application. In the case of law enforcement internships, students in degree programs, such as criminal justice, criminology, sociology, forensic science, or related disciplines, may apply theory and research to an agency's investigative work.
Similar to the way organizations employ internship programs to forge partnerships with academic institutions, interns can use the experience to network, both formally and informally, with law enforcement professionals. Ultimately, networking proves an invaluable tool that greatly enhances the student's experience.
DESIGN AND UPKEEP OF AN INTERNSHIP PROGRAM
Creating a law enforcement internship program without prior organizational precedence may seem like a daunting task. However, while the initial implementation process may require a degree of planning and coordination, the work involved to sustain the program is relatively minimal. On the most basic level, designing an internship initiative primarily involves designating a program coordinator, determining the interns' roles, coordinating with academic institutions, and recognizing security issues.
Designating a Coordinator
A single individual or working group should have responsibility for program oversight. In geographically confined law enforcement organizations, such as state and local police agencies, one individual usually can assume this role. Federal jurisdictions may require multiple coordinators on a regional level to reduce unnecessary travel by staff and internship applicants. The coordinator can assume the role as a collateral duty, and the position may be best suited for the agency's applicant administrator or human resources department.
Determining the Interns' Roles
Agency leaders should decide the ultimate scope of the program and anticipated roles of the interns. Funding and staffing represent important preliminary issues to consider. Managers need to determine the number of interns their departments can and want to employ in a given time period based on their needs. For example, certain units or efforts may be understaffed where an intern could be of potential use. Leaders also must take into account the proximity of colleges and universities. Without institutions within a reasonable travel distance, internships during the traditional school year may prove impractical.
Law enforcement agencies also need to decide what skill sets or degree programs they want and should base these decisions on where they expect to use students. Interns assisting in the day-to-day operations of the organization may be studying criminal justice or related disciplines. On the other hand, larger departments with a wider variety of assets and programs often can find a place for students in any academic field.
Coordinating with Academic Institutions
The law enforcement agency makes up only one-half of the internship program. An effective enterprise should involve a strong professional relationship with participating colleges and universities. Points of contact at academic institutions should first include department chairpersons of the degree programs of interest. These individuals then may designate an internship coordinator, or assume the role themselves, to work with the agency internship coordinator to determine mutual objectives for the program. Coordination with the academic institution should include discussing desired intern qualifications, designing a student curriculum that satisfies both parties, and determining the selection and nomination process. The two entities also should take into account logistical issues, such as the length of the internship and college credit requirements. The most important consideration centers on the agency and the academic institution finding the various details of the program mutually acceptable.
Recognizing Security Issues
Additional aspects of an internship program focus on the sensitive nature of law enforcement work. Most agencies wisely screen interns in the same manner as regular employees. Most important, they need to consider the type of information interns may have access to. Particularly in smaller departments, interns may know individuals under investigation due to the social environment and ages of the people involved. Therefore, officials should take the necessary security precautions, including seeking legal advice, to preserve the integrity of the organization and the program. Finally, agencies should advise potential interns and academic internship coordinators of the anticipated length of the application process to ensure that all parties can meet deadlines and clear students for work within the desired time frame.
The design and operation of an internship program is relatively simple and involves few additional resources. Through mutual efforts with nearby colleges and universities, almost any law enforcement agency could gain a great deal from undertaking the task. The cost-to-benefit ratio is notable, particularly in instances where the department provides unpaid opportunities. Interns also facilitate important and beneficial liaison between colleges and universities and host law enforcement organizations. Students bring innovative ideas from the academic setting, and law enforcement agencies have the opportunity to evaluate potential future employees.
Internships provide great benefits to students as well. Interns can gain a practical understanding of their field of study and enhance their classroom knowledge with real-life experiences. Internships also provide students with a chance to network and obtain firsthand information about an organization and the type of work it performs. Finally, students can gain a tremendous experience while, at the same time, receiving college credit.
Such endeavors can offer both law enforcement professionals and college students opportunities to grow and learn from one another. The author's participation in the FBI Honors Internship Program enabled him to witness the value and utility of a law enforcement internship program and to offer the insights he garnered to students and law enforcement agencies.
(1) The author based this article on his participation in the FBI Honors Internship Program. His insights reflect common perceptions gained through interactions with dozens of FBI special agents in supervisory and executive-level management positions, other interns in the program, and professors at his academic institution.
(2) Additional information about the FBI's initiative is available at http://www.fbi.gov under Apply for a Job, Internship Programs.
Mr. Lees was an FBI Honors Intern in the Crisis Management Unit, Critical Incident Response Group, at the FBI Academy.
RELATED ARTICLE: The FBI Honors Internship Program
Every October, college students submit application packets to the 56 FBI field offices located throughout the United States. Applicant coordinators then identify qualified candidates and forward their applications to FBI Headquarters for review and final selection. There, administrators select an alternate and a finalist for each office. Approximately 100 interns participate in the 10-week summer program. Assigned to various units at FBI Headquarters, the FBI Academy, the FBI Laboratory, or the Criminal Justice Information Services Division, they earn a salary comparable to entry-level professional support employees.
The interns become involved in a wide array of activities in their short stint with the FBI. One described this as a "crash course in everything FBI." Personal experiences vary widely based on the interns' backgrounds and assignments. For example, working in the Crisis Management Unit, a part of the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group, the author received assignments primarily involved with planning and participating in national, multiagency emergency-preparedness exercises. These tasks familiarized him with the National Response Plan and National Incident Management System and allowed him to absorb real-life conditions while working with crisis command-post operations. Through personal experience and interactions with other interns, the author found the program extremely rewarding and beneficial to both the interns and the FBI. (2)