What got you interested in your career path?
BH: I grew up in New York City, in neighborhoods where everyone assumed that by age 25, young men would either be dead or in jail. I didn’t want to be a part of that statistic, so I tried to do the right things in life. I decided to go into law enforcement because I wanted to make a difference in communities similar to the one I was raised in. My goal is to provide a different pathway in life for the kids coming out of these types of neighborhoods. No longer do I want people to look at all of the kids coming out of these neighborhoods and assume that they are all criminals, like they did with my friends and me. Working in law enforcement is not just my job, it is my vocation. We are all products of our environment, and I want to be a positive reflection of my community.
I studied sociology and criminology in college, because I was interested in how things relate. Over the course of 18 years I have worked my way up from security guard, to correctional officer, to police officer, to Special Agent with ICE and now Special Agent with the FBI. It has been a great journey, because I have acquired such a variety of experiences, knowledge and perspectives along the way. But I tell everyone that my past is my intangible career asset. It made it possible for me to excel and gives me a passion for my work.
Tell us about some of the challenges you faced getting started in this career.
BH: In my first job as a correctional officer in South Carolina, I worked in a jail that was transitioning from a “reactive” facility to a “proactive” facility. Within a reactive facility, the inmates were behind bars all the time, separated from the correctional officers. But in a “proactive” facility the inmates and the correctional officers are together all the time in an open area just like in a school cafeteria. This meant we had to talk to inmates and interact with them, rather than just locking them up. I was only 22 years old when I started work there. I was in charge of a dorm of 60 inmates, and some of them had spent more time in jail than I had been alive. They didn’t want to follow the new rules, especially from a young guy getting started in his career. So I did two things: I stuck to the policy of the facility and I tried to assist the inmates to better themselves mentally and spiritually. Most of my 8 to 16 hour days were spent talking to inmates about everything in life.
What did you do after your stint as a corrections officer?
BH: I worked as a police officer in Atlanta. During my time in Atlanta (1997—2004), we were transitioning to a new form of policing, called “intelligence- led policing.” I joined the crime analysis unit. One of our big cases concerned a serial bank robber who was known as the perimeter bandit. He had robbed banks located all around the city. We used mathematical algorithms to predict when and where his next heist would be and as a result, we arrested him. The case was then shown on NBC Nightly News.
After Atlanta you became a special agent at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and then at the FBI. How does that differ from working in the crime analysis unit of a local police force?
BH: When you work in a police force – even in the crime analysis unit –it is difficult to do long-term investigations because you are always under pressure to produce immediate results. So you arrest someone and then move on to the next crime. You rarely move up the ladder high enough to arrest the kingpins who are in charge of the networks. These guys are smart and they keep things compartmentalized, so when the lower level guys get caught, the networks don’t get dismantled. The network is what is valuable and the commodity can always be replaced.
The FBI aims for the top and tries to disrupt and dismantle the networks. The FBI has the apparatus, so we can reach the higher levels of the criminal enterprise. We can arrest them on conspiracy charges (Title 18). So even if they pay lower level people to do the dirty work, we can charge them as part of a conspiracy.
Tell us about some of the crime networks you have investigated.
BH: When I was working at the FBI’s Tampa Field Office we initiated a case called ”Operation Dual Identity” which involved a massive car-cloning network with cells throughout the U.S. and Mexico. They were a very sophisticated network of car thieves, who stole new high-end cars and boats, and then gave them false identities by counterfeiting VIN titles and plates from legitimate vehicles. The cars would then be sold through underground networks throughout the U.S., especially in Chicago and Texas. They had been operating for nearly 20 years and stole more than a thousand vehicles in Florida. The ring was started by some individuals of Cuban descent who immigrated to Florida. More recently they had moved some of their operations to Mexico trying to get out of the reach of the U.S. law enforcement; however due to this investigation the FBI was able to apprehend, extradite, and then prosecute them.
This group was characteristic of many of today’s crime networks in that they were involved in lots of different crimes: human smuggling, identity theft, marijuana grow houses, drug trafficking, home invasions, even murder. They commingled legitimate business with their illicit activities, and like modern corporations, they were interested in diversification. Members of the network had their own roles and specialization, but they were able to use their connections over a wide variety of criminal activities. Taking down this organization took a lot of work, and cooperation by lots of different agencies. The investigation was initiated in December 2006 and we executed the arrest warrants in March 2009.
When did you meet Dr. Shelley and how have you collaborated?
BH: We met at a Symposium on Human Trafficking in Oklahoma City. I was impressed with her ability to combine the research she had conducted with the information she gleaned from practitioners. We see eye-to-eye on the importance of networks in criminal activity. She asked me to give a lecture at her course on illicit trade and I was honored to do so.
What kind of research would you, as a practitioner, find most useful from a research institution like TraCCC?
BH: One thing that I have learned in working on transnational crime cases is that the commodities are interchangeable. It’s the networks that matter, because sustaining those networks allows the criminals to make their money. We need to collaborate to better understand the impact of transnational crime networks on our society. Law enforcement works to stop immediate threats. But then we have to move on to the next investigation. Academics and researchers can follow up with studies to better understand the workings of these networks and the effectiveness of actions to combat them. In particular, academics can help in measuring the impact of economic crimes, since law enforcement focuses more on crime against persons. Academic research can play an important role in making policy recommendations and helping to direct scarce resources in the right places. We need to collaborate closely and make law enforcement data available to researchers to do this kind of work.
What advice would you give to young people, who are looking for a career in law enforcement or intelligence?
BH: The hiring trends tend to change every few years, but it is always good to speak several languages and have advanced knowledge of cyber-security. But for any successful career the most important thing is to have a plan and write it down. Outline all the requirements you need to accomplish your goal. Search the internet, identify all the training and education you need, and make a list of every step along the road. If you write every little step down, and cross it off when you have accomplished it, it will help psychologically, and keep you going on those days when you get discouraged and fear that your goal is very far away.