Famously known as the training grounds for incoming special agents, the FBI’s sprawling academy in Quantico, Virginia also plays host to some 1,000 domestic and international law enforcement officers every year.

Since 1935, the agency’s prestigious National Academy (NA) has brought together policing leaders in a range of backgrounds for an intensive professional development course under FBI leadership. At the Academy, students integrate for ten weeks, living together in academy dorms, undergoing strenuous physical training and classroom instruction by seasoned special agents and experts in a variety of subjects.

This June, one of the 228 graduates from 48 states and 24 countries included Wausau’s own deputy chief, Ben Bliven.

“It was just an incredible experience,” Bliven said. “The course work was tough. Tougher than I expected. But I learned so many things that I brought back here to share with the rest of the department. It was an amazing experience.”

Ben and JinHeung Kim (South Korea)
Wausau Police Deputy Chief Ben Bliven poses for a photo with JinJueng Kim, an officer from South Korea. Both men attended the FBI National Academy this spring.

The Academy began July 29, 1935, created in response to a 1930 study by the Wickersham Commission that recommended the standardization and professionalization of law enforcement departments across the U.S. through centralized training. With strong support from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and with the authority of Congress and the Department of Justice, the “FBI Police Training School” was born. Courses at that time included scientific aids in crime detection, preparation of reports, criminal investigation techniques, and administration and organization. With the advent of World War II, courses were added in espionage and sabotage.

Prompted by ever-changing twenty-first century challenges, FBI leadership has recently adjusted the NA’s curriculum to address a host of issues ranging from threats posed by homegrown extremists to tensions between police departments and the communities they serve. Now in its 269th session, National Academy students undergo a mandatory classroom leadership course designed partly to address the contentious issue of police mistrust, which is front and center in several jurisdictions around the country.

The challenging curriculum, taught by FBI teaching staff and other professional educators, focuses on leadership development and emphasizes critical thinking. Course offerings include legal issues, behavioral science, forensic science, law enforcement communication, fitness and health. Courses are accredited through the University of Virginia and students have the opportunity to earn up to 19 units of college credit upon graduation.

Bliven said he first applied in 2013, submitting an application to a Milwaukee-based FBI officer who decides which officers are offered the unique opportunity. Then, those names are placed on a waiting list. Each officer chosen undergoes a background check, medical screening and in-person interview before the appointment is finalized, Bliven said.

Ben Public Speaking Class
Wausau Police Deputy Chief Ben Bliven gives a speech during a class at the FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia.

Some officers wait a decade or more before being given the chance to attend. For Bliven, the wait would have been longer if not for Wausau Police Chief Jeff Hardel.

“Jeff got a letter in 2016 that he’d been chosen,” Bliven said.

But with Hardel’s retirement on the horizon, the chief ultimately decided to offer his spot to his second in command, who would have more time to share the lessons learned at training with the rest of the department — as well as future recruits.

Bliven said he made the most of his time at Quantico, taking required leadership training along with public speaking and emotional wellness classes. Most interesting, Bliven said, was a course in how to deal with the media effectively.

“That was probably the most helpful thing, learning how to deal with the press and the public and communicating our message,” Bliven said.

That course was taught by a former U.S. Marine public information officer and a veteran reporter from Washington, D.C., to give the trainees a multi-faceted training experience.

“We want to communicate with the public and with the media in a way that is mindful of our values and the purpose behind what we do,” Bliven said.

In Bliven’s office, a bright yellow brick sits atop a shelf across from this desk. The brick marks a major accomplishment at training, completing the final test of the fitness challenge. Called the Yellow Brick Road, the challenge consists of a grueling 6.1-mile run through a hilly, wooded trail built by the Marines. Along the way, the participants climb over walls, run through creeks, jump through simulated windows, scale rock faces with ropes, crawl under barbed wire in muddy water, maneuver across a cargo net, and more. The course came to be known as the “Yellow Brick Road” years ago, after the Marines placed yellow bricks at various spots to show runners the way through the wooded trail.

The overall fitness challenge began at the National Academy in 1981 and has evolved over the years; we started awarding yellow bricks in 1988. Not all trainees complete the challenge. Bliven did.

But the biggest challenge of all, Bliven said, was being away from his wife and family for 10 weeks.

“It was a burden on my wife, on both of us, and it was hard on the kids,” Bliven said. “But it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”