In the United States, law enforcement agencies are charged with the responsibility of maintaining order, investigating suspected criminal activity, deterring any such activity, and enforcement of court orders. Law enforcement officers (also commonly referred to as peace officers) are also mandated by law to protect certain public officials as well as to keep certain public facilities secure. Peace officers in the United States are also involved in providing other service functions at the local level such as responding to emergencies.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) was created as a federal law enforcement agency and falls under the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). ATF was established as provided for by the United States Code (U.S.C) and its law enforcement officers (peace officers) are authorized to exercise and enforce authority at the federal level. Lott (2007) explains that ATF’s responsibilities include investigation and prevention of all forms of domestic or foreign illegitimate trade involving alcohol and tobacco products. ATF is also mandated to exercise federal authority to regulate the possession of firearms and to prevent any unauthorized and criminal use of weapons and explosives. The federal agency is also charged with the responsibility of fighting all forms of terror activities or arson involving the use of homemade devices, high or low explosives, and bombings.
Selection Process for a Peace Officer
ATF administers a rigorous physical ability test (PAT) in the Special Agent selection process and, like in most federal and state law enforcement agencies, the hiring process is fiercely competitive. Reiss (1992) explains that the hiring process has a nondisclosure agreement and therefore the content and specific details of the selection process are not made public. Though the minimum basic entry requirement for ATF is a four-year bachelor’s degree from a recognized university, candidates are expected to have a record of at least four years of proven competitive and relevant experience at a local or state police department. To achieve a top-secret clearance, applicants are first subjected to a stringent background check. The background investigation involves compressive fingerprinting and drug testing.
Before they can even be considered to be selected for training, the applicants must pass a set of written exams. Among other things, the written exams are designed to test basic writing mechanics and to measure the applicant’s reading and writing ability. The candidates are then subjected to a series of repeated interviews, multiple physical fitness tests, and medical examination tests, including consultation with a psychologist. Serrano (2011) explains that the series of the oral interview is arguably the most subjective part of the selection process and eliminates the largest portion of equally qualified candidates. Other common practices used by ATF to verify the authenticity of the information provided and thus review the suitability of candidates include a polygraph or voice stress analysis.
Compared to the hiring process of the other sister agencies, ATF’s selection process is generally cutthroat and, typically, only less than 5% of potential candidates are eventually hired.
The Training Process (Academy and Field Training)
ATF has one of the most intense, rigorous, and longest training programs in the United States. The intensive training program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centre (FLETC) in Georgia lasts for 27 weeks and is by far longer than that of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which are all under the DOJ. The training program at the interagency law enforcement training center, at the former Naval Air Station Glynco, consists of three major stages: The first stage of training consists of a whole week of intensive pre-Basic. This is then followed by twelve weeks of basic Criminal Investigator Training Program. The final stage of the program involves a fourteen-week Special Agent Basic Training Course. Upon successful completion of this training process, ATF Special Agents are posted to any one of the several ATF field offices to start working on probation.
Development Programs (Ongoing Training, Promotional Opportunities)
Though there is no strict periodic qualification test or physical fitness exam, ATF agents are required to affirm their competence in the use of weapons twice each year. Carter (1995) explains that promotion from entry-level (GS-5-7) through GS-12 follows the normal ATF career order and is routine as long as the Officer can meet the minimal standard. Thereafter, promotion is based on specific qualifications, competence, and personal abilities as well as achievements.
Agents who wish to venture into the area of management, for example, are at liberty to compete for the available management positions in various field offices and federal stations. Those who wish to continue as agents, on the other hand, continue as GS-13 until they attain the retirement age. Like many other law enforcement bodies in the U.S, ATF has an up-and-stay policy, no written contracts of employment and the agents are eligible to retire at the age of 50. There are few voluntary or involuntary exits before retirement, and like most federal law enforcement agencies, the mandatory retirement age is set at the age of 57.
All ATF agents are categorized as general schedule government employees and are well remunerated based on grade. As law enforcement officers (series 1811), each agent is also entitled to receive a 25 percent bonus for unscheduled overtime.
Carter, B.,(1995). Chicago Chooses Criminologist to Head and Clean Up the Police, The New York Times, 22(6), 23.
Lott, M.,(2007). Project Gunrunner’ Whistleblower Says ATF Sent Him Termination Notice, Fox News, 49(12), 55.
Reiss, J. (1992). Police Organization in the Twentieth Century. Crime and Justice Quartely, 4 (2),51.
Serrano, R., (2011). ATF promotes supervisors in controversial gun operation. The Los Angeles Times 16(7), 47.