MONDAY Q&A: Former FBI agent turns cadets into police officers
• EDITOR'S NOTE: David Zacur, retired after 30 years as an FBI agent, has returned to his alma mater, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, to take on a new challenge -- overseeing the university's Criminal Justice Training Center. He recently discussed his career and the program used to train police officers in Pennsylvania with staffer Jason Levan.
Question: What does your job entail?
Answer: Basically, the job as director is to oversee the Criminal Justice Training Center, which includes Act 120, the basic program that, in order to be a police officer in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, you have to go through.
Question: And then there's a test at the end, I assume?
Answer: We have a series of tests over the course of the 19-week course. And at the end of the course, they go to Harrisburg, and there's a test administered by MPOETC, the Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission, which has the final say. If they pass that, they are eligible to become police officers.
Question: How often is the Act 120 course offered?
Answer: We have two 19-week classes during the year. This one started in January, and the next one starts in July.
Question: How many people are usually in the class?
Answer: There really is no limit. Ideally, we'd like to have between 30 and 45 people. Anyone who wants to be a police officer in Pennsylvania must go through this academy. There are a number of other academies throughout the state, unless you're going to go to the state police; they have their own academy.
Question: Where is it conducted? Is it a lot of classroom work?
Answer: We have a classroom here in the basement (of Eicher Hall). There is extensive firearms training at a range that the Indiana Borough police uses, the FOP range in Penn Run. And various campus sites. The cadets also go to the Red Cross for training.
Question: So there's a physical fitness component, too?
Answer: It's a combination of physical fitness training several times throughout the week, defensive tactics, firearms training, and of course in (the) classroom, from studying the Pennsylvania crime code to drugs, traffic enforcement, so it's all-encompassing.
Question: I guess learning the crime code would be a big part of it?
Answer: This is the size of the book (holding a 3-inch-thick manual).
Question: That's a little intimidating.
Answer: Yeah, but these cadets are motivated, and they know what's at stake for them. We have great instructors, too. They make it fun, they make it interesting, because some of this stuff, as you can imagine, is pretty dry.
Question: How many instructors are there?
Answer: Over the course of 19 weeks, we probably have in excess of 20 instructors come in. A lot of the instructors we have are active police officers from surrounding municipalities. These guys are on the street, so (cadets) are getting up to date, what's going on right now.
Question: So it's more than just book training; there's a lot to it.
Answer: During our processing for cadets, the biggest problem is them passing the physical.
Question: Is it obesity issues, or what?
Answer: You know what I think it is, and I've talked to other instructors about it, it's the generation of kids we're seeing now. … Now they're more inclined toward the Nintendo Wii and all the other electronic devices out there, and that's what they do. They aren't in shape, nor do they have any incentive to be in shape really.
Question: Do most of the folks who train for the municipal police find a job around here, or do they fan out?
Answer: We have recruiters that actively come to campus during the training. They will come and ask us about various candidates. They'll go in and talk to the classes. So we do have a large part of the graduating class that does obtain employment throughout the commonwealth. … We're pretty lucky; IUP has a very solid reputation for its Act 120 courses.
Question: What's the percentage of how many make it through?
Answer: I'd say we have a graduation rate of almost 97 percent.
Question: Switching gears, you were a special agent. What did that allow you to do?
Answer: We collect evidence and investigate cases that the United States government may be a party to. It's enforcement of all federal laws on the books.
Question: How did you get involved in the FBI?
Answer: After I graduated from (Indiana Area) high school in '67, I came up here (IUP) for my freshman year, and for a lack of better words, I was not focused fully. The draft was still occurring here, so I figured in avoidance of the draft, I enlisted in the service. I ended up in the Republic of Vietnam. After being wounded in action and being returned here to Indiana, I had a much better perspective of what I wanted to do. It wasn't until I talked to several of the local police officers here -- Jack "Punch" McGregor and Mo Allison -- and they were the ones who said, "Did you ever think about the FBI?" … It's not like I had a grand plan. It happened that way, and I'm glad it did.
Question: What happened to you in Vietnam?
Answer: I was a medic and I was wounded in action. I was evacuated back to a field hospital in Japan, then Valley Forge General Hospital, where I was given an honorable discharge under a medical condition.
Question: So that gave you quite a different perspective on life in general, I guess.
Answer: It sure did. I knew the ramifications of not studying and understood what I had to do here. Plus, my dad was a (geography) professor here. I didn't want to let him down.
Question: How long were you in the FBI before you retired?
Answer: Thirty years. … During the course of my career, I did a lot of undercover work, so that was not atypical. When cases came up where we had to do something undercover, and it was something that I thought I could do, I either was asked or volunteered. … I was on the SWAT team, and that was as much of a voluntary thing. They would look at you and see if you had the qualifications and the ability to get along with people because trust is so important. And the same thing with undercover work. The bureau at that time conducted an undercover school, in which you'd go down to Quantico (Va.), and you'd be evaluated, not only for tactical purposes but for psychological purposes, and you were certified undercover. And according to whatever your talents were, you were given the option if you wanted to participate in a project.
Question: When you were doing undercover work, were there any times that you thought you were almost over your head in danger?
Answer: I don't know that undercover work is any more risky than being a police officer. You pick up the newspaper, and you see a police officer being wounded or killed. Being an everyday police officer might be more dangerous because they respond to so many different situations. It's one of those things where you get up in the morning, whether you're an FBI agent or a police officer, you don't know what's going to happen that day. And 9/11 was a perfect example. I was in the Johnstown bureau that day. We got the phone call that United 93 went down in Shanksville. That's only about a half-hour away. We jumped in the cars, and then it started.
Question: What was the response to all of that?
Answer: I didn't get a chance to see the planes actually go into the World Trade Center until later that day, and it was surreal. When we showed up at Shanksville, in that field, it was like, wow. The funny part about that was that in Vietnam -- I told you I was a medic -- the team I was on, one of our responsibilities was to rescue pilots that had been shot down. We responded to such a situation in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It was a helicopter crash. Once we came upon the crash site (on 9/11), the sights and the smells of that helicopter crash in Vietnam were identical to walking on site of the wreckage -- that hole in the ground -- that was Flight 93. It was like it took me instantly back to September 1969.
For the next three or four weeks we were there anywhere from 16 to 18 hours a day, along with many other agencies that were there.
Question: How did they all get coordinated? What a massive effort.
Answer: Well, it's interesting. You always hear about organizations that don't want to share, and professional jealously. But it's funny how in situations like this, all of that goes aside and everyone pulls together because the common denominator was collection of evidence, collection of what human remains were left, and try to piece this thing together. Totally focused. Of course, when you look at the big picture of what happened that day, we were such a small part of it compared to what the New York people were going through and the guys at the Pentagon. That was our own little world.
Question: How does the training for an FBI agent compare to that of a police officer?
Answer: I wouldn't say it's identical, but it's the same basic premise -- physical training and, of course, firearms training, an emphasis on the federal criminal code, a lot of forensics, crime scenes.
Question: Did you travel a lot?
Answer: For almost four years, I was on a detective detail for the attorney general, William Smith, and counselor to the president, Edwin Meese. In the early '80s, Moammar Gadhafi threatened to send a hit team to the United States to whack various heads of state, so all of them got their own protective detail. The attorney general is our boss; we were his bodyguards. So during that period, I traveled extensively around the world with the attorney general and on several occasions with President Ronald Reagan.
Question: What is the biggest misconception about the FBI?
Answer: There's a lot of crime dramas on TV now, and the impression of John Q. Public is CSI. I worked in the FBI labs, so I know how these things work. It takes time. It's not solved in an hour or a half hour. But a lot of the technology that you see on TV and techniques used are very real.
One of the biggest misconceptions was that right after 9/11, the American people thought the FBI was prying into every little aspect of their life to find cells of terrorists. Believe me … no one is more sensitive to preserving the civil rights of citizens than the FBI. The trouble is, when you're charged with the responsibility of connecting the dots, you try every means within the letter of the law to do that. … Since 9/11, all the successes that all law enforcement have had in combating terrorist activities does not get one inch of press. It's only when you get the big splash cases. The American people really don't have an idea how well they've been protected since 9/11.
Question: How integral do you think the FBI has been in preventing another big attack?
Answer: In a lot of work that I did -- I did a lot of drug work -- a lot of the cases would start at the local level, the cop that pulled someone over for a traffic stop and they had a boatload of stuff. And then we get a call. And that's why federal law enforcement has had a lot of these successes, because state and local police are out there every day, and we have these lines of communication open. So a lot of the successes are due to the cooperation between the feds and local guys.
• NEXT WEEK: Ken Sherwood, co-chairman of Friends of Yellow Creek.
• EDITOR'S NOTE: Do you know someone who would be a great subject for the Monday Q&A? If so, please call Jason Levan at (724) 465-5555, ext. 270.