9 Misconceptions About the FBI

Thanks to shows like ‘Criminal Minds’ or even ‘The X Files,’ you might think the FBI has complete jurisdiction in serial killer crimes and alien investigations. Well, not really.
Cool jacket optional.
Cool jacket optional. / Nes/E+/Getty Images

If you’ve seen a movie or television show in the past 40 or so years, you’ve definitely seen a moment where a bunch of FBI agents wearing raid jackets storm onto a crime scene and immediately take control of the investigation. State police are ticked off. Local cops roll their eyes. And a killer plays a cat and mouse game with some very determined profilers, leaving clues as to where and how they’ll strike again. Does this actually happen in real life?

We’ll take a look at the many myths about the G-men and G-women in the list below, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: FBI agents can just roll up to a crime scene and take over.

While it seems like federal agents do little more than chase diabolical criminal masterminds around the country, that’s not really accurate. 

For one thing, the FBI typically has no jurisdiction over murder cases unless they meet a very specific definition. For another, the FBI can’t really bark orders at local cops at the spur of the moment. Local law enforcement generally needs to actively solicit help from the agency and invite them in, sort of like a vampire. Even if there was some circumstance that meant the FBI needed to swoop in, they’re not higher ranking than local law enforcement, so they all just work together. 

In order for the FBI to lend a hand in an investigation, there typically needs to be cause. For example, a murder that took place on federal property or at a federally insured place of business, like a bank. Federal officials, like judges or elected officials, are also potential victims that would warrant their involvement. Or, if a murder potentially involved interstate flight by the suspect or a criminal enterprise, like a major drug operation. 

And if federal agents do assist in a local crime, they’re usually doing just that—assisting, not controlling. The clichéd, we’re-in-charge-now roll-up scene? Probably not happening.

But what about that other classic FBI stereotype—that of the FBI profiler squad who doggedly looks for the patterns of serial killers before chasing them down on foot? Hollywood, you’ve lied to us again.

2. Misconception: FBI profilers hunt serial killers.

Exterior shot of FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.
FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. / Richard T. Nowitz/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Since its formation in 1908, the FBI has been the investigative branch of the Department of Justice for a variety of matters, including organized crime and domestic terrorism. But one offender stands out among the rest: the serial killer. In everything from The Silence of the Lambs to Mindhunter, we see FBI agents probe inside the minds of clever maniacs. And while it’s absolutely true the FBI has done extensive research on serial killers, there isn’t actually a position called “profiler” in the agency, a person who shines a flashlight around an abandoned warehouse and imagines how the victim may have been dismembered. 

The FBI must get this question a lot, as it appears as part of their Q&A on the FBI website [PDF]:

“The FBI does not have a job called ‘profiler.’ Supervisory special agents assigned to the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) at Quantico, Virginia, perform the tasks commonly associated with ‘profiling.’ Despite some popular depictions, these FBI special agents do not get ‘vibes’ or experience psychic ‘flashes’ while walking around fresh crime scenes.”

Wow, deep shade thrown at Criminal Minds

The media likes to use the word profilers, and even some agents refer to themselves this way. But what the FBI actually has is the behavioral analysts in Behavioral Analysis Units. These are highly specialized departments in which agents receive extensive training that can include up to 16 weeks of classroom work and up to two years of mentorship in addition to a baseline of seven to 10 years of FBI agent experience. The BAU agents consult with law enforcement and review evidence, then present their findings and thoughts to the appropriate agency. Those officials then continue the investigation. 

It’s true that the BAU and agents like Robert Ressler and John Douglas interviewed serial killers like Ed Kemper in the 1970s to help create profiles. But the BAU doesn’t just investigate killers—they also research white-collar crimes, terrorism, and cyber-crimes. But a half-dozen people hunting killers full-time on a private plane? Nah.

There’s also debate over the value of the profiling work that has been done. Some critics of profiling argue that the serial killers interviewed by agents are, by nature, deceptive and misleading. Also, patterns that might be detectable at a crime scene may not correlate with patterns in a killer’s everyday life. 

That’s probably just as well, as the world isn’t as chock-full of serial murderers as it used to be. According to data compiled by Radford University psychology professor Mike Aamodt, roughly 770 serial killers were cutting a path across America through the 1970s and 1980s. The number has crept down ever since. In 2015, only about 30 deaths were attributed to serial killers in the U.S..

Why the decline? There are a lot of theories. For one thing, a lot of serial killers relied on hitchhiking, which was common in the 1970s but has since trailed off considerably. Sex workers, who were popular targets of killers, became more aware of potential dangers. Some observers credit longer prison sentences for repeat offenders, while others believe it’s due to safer communities that have improved on everything from motion detection lights to home security systems to video surveillance. Cameras are also everywhere now, and that may be more useful than any flak-jacketed profiler. 

3. Misconception: FBI agents can’t have any history of drug use.

Picture your prototypical FBI agent. They’re probably clean-cut, in a suit, and refusing to crack a smile. What they’re not doing is sneaking rips off a coke spoon in the bathroom. 

It’s often believed that the FBI takes a zero-tolerance approach to drugs with recruits. If you took even one puff of a spliff one time in college, you’re simply not FBI material. Maybe mall cop is the better option. 

Not so. It is true that the FBI, along with other federal employers, has pretty stringent drug policies, but they don’t expect you to have been drug-free since birth. In 2021, the FBI actually relaxed the rule against marijuana use. Previously, applicants couldn’t have used weed in the three years before applying. Now it’s just the previous year. And any use prior to someone’s 18th birthday is also excused.

Many of the strict policies came in the 1980s in tandem with Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s aggressive crackdown on drugs. Reagan signed an executive order in 1986 that banned all federal employees from using any drug, claiming it made them “less productive, less reliable, and prone to greater absenteeism.” Lately, a shrinking workforce and more relaxed attitudes about marijuana have led to loosened regulations.

Harder illegal drugs are a different story. A candidate can’t have used coke, heroin, crack, LSD, or any other mind-bending substance within 10 years of their application [PDF]. 

Here’s the question you may be asking. How would the FBI know if you tooted up a little nose candy at a party eight years ago? Well, it’s the FBI. Before they hire you, they’re going to do a substantial background check, including interviews with your friends and former co-workers. You’ll also probably have to submit to a polygraph test. So if you plan on becoming an agent sometime in the next 10 years, you might want to rethink that acid trip.

4. Misconception: The FBI can’t discuss cases.

A law enforcement fingerprint card.
An old school fingerprint card helps identify perps. / Douglas Sacha/Moment/Getty Images

It’s believed most government agencies have a level of secrecy surrounding them—that employees might acknowledge working for a branch but can’t actually talk about their work.

That’s not exactly true. Agents can speak about their jobs, but they just need to have a little distance from them first. As you’ve probably noticed in some documentaries, agents can and do go over their investigations, but only if the cases have gone through the criminal justice system and are no longer active

In fact, a lot of former FBI agents have written books about their time with the bureau, including Special Agent: My Life on the Front Lines as a Woman in the FBI by Candice DeLong, Ghost: My 30 Years as an FBI Undercover Agent by Michael McGowan, and FBI Myths and Misconceptions: A Manual for Armchair Detectives by Jerri Williams.

An agent isn’t going to talk about an active case in any real detail, but if you happen to be at a cocktail party and want to ask them about the serial killer they helped apprehend in 1987, there’s no official policy preventing them from answering you. They just may not want to, and depending on what exactly that serial killer has done, you may not want to ask.

5. Misconception: The FBI is always wearing FBI jackets.

Here’s an easy Halloween costume. Buy a blue jacket with FBI emblazoned on the back. It seems like most depictions of agents in movies and TV include them wearing the most obvious apparel possible. 

If you encounter a real agent, they’ll be wearing some professional attire, but probably not something that makes them look like they’re directly out of central casting. FBI agents are not required to wear FBI jackets as a rule and they definitely don’t casually walk around the office with one on.

More Stories About Crime


A few other dress code realities: No, you don’t have to wear sunglasses indoors. No, you don’t have to drive a black SUV. And no, you don’t need a short haircut. But the FBI does have certain parameters for new agent trainees showing up for training [PDF]. You can’t have any facial piercings beyond women wearing earrings; you have to be clean-shaven; your tattoos can’t be disruptive, whatever that means, but you can cover them; and men’s hair can’t be more than collar-length, but you can get a religious or disability exception.

6. Misconception: The FBI never hires civilians.

Man being interrogated on a polygraph machine by a technician standing behind him.
Civilians need to pass a background check to be hired by the FBI. / D-Keine/E+/Getty Images

As the thinking goes, to make it in the FBI, you have to be top of your class, the 1 percent, with a degree in criminal justice and expert marksmanship. It is true that the acceptance rate for agents is low, but the reality is, any civilian can apply for a job within the FBI—and no superhuman academic or law enforcement experience is needed.

The bureau is always hiring for a variety of roles, from intelligence analysts that gather data to IT positions. The FBI also has openings in skilled trades, like locksmithing, plumbing, and automotive mechanics. 

The requirements—educational and otherwise—can vary depending on the job. But generally, you need to have a clean background check, pass a drug test, be a U.S. citizen, and, per the FBI’s website, not have any “engagement with organizations designed to overthrow the U.S. government,” which seems like stating the obvious but you can never be too careful.

The best part of becoming a fed? Even if you’re not an agent, you’ll still receive your job training at the FBI’s Quantico facility in Virginia. 

7. Misconception: The FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List are the 10 most wanted people. 

Some of the most dangerous criminals in the country are usually highlighted in the FBI’s Most Wanted list, which exists to put a spotlight on suspects the bureau has deemed priority cases. The list dates back to 1949, when, according to the FBI, a newspaper reporter named James Donovan asked for a list of the “toughest guys” the bureau was investigating [PDF]. They obliged, and the popularity of this list meant that in 1950 the first official FBI list was unveiled. 

But it’s not for any old criminal. The FBI says that to be featured, the person has to pose a major threat to society and the FBI feels that the increased publicity of placing them on the list will make it more likely they’ll be arrested. So, already, it’s not the 10 most wanted criminals. 

And it’s not always 10. Most of the time it is, but as of 2020, the list has gone beyond 10 suspects 13 times, reaching a maximum of 16 when six members of Weather Underground were added in 1970. Also, the suspects aren’t ranked. It’s a list. And a successful one at that—as of 2020, 523 fugitives have been featured and 488 found.

8. Misconception: The FBI is always in the middle of the action.

FBI agent at his desk examining a case report
FBI agents spend a lot of time on paperwork. / Ignatiev/E+/Getty Images

The FBI demands that its agents be in excellent physical condition. That, and Hollywood, has lent credence to the idea that the bureau is full of agents who are constantly running, jumping, and chasing suspects through eerie cornfields and across rooftops. In fact, the FBI’s training academy mandates that potential agents pass a physical fitness test, including a timed 300-meter sprint, a timed 1.5 mile run, and as many push-ups as a person can do.

Despite the fitness requirements, it’s more likely the average day for an agent is going to involve a lot less sweat. According to the FBI, agent duties typically involve testifying in court, gathering evidence, talking to sources, and filling out paperwork. It’s just that subtitling a book My 30 Years Filling Out Forms probably won’t move many copies.

To be clear, being an agent can absolutely be dangerous. About 92 employees of the agency have died in the line of duty since 1925. Those are tragic losses, but fortunately, shootouts are an infrequent occurrence on the job.

9. Misconception: The FBI investigates aliens.

Ahh, The X-Files. It’s some of the best 1990s television you’re ever going to see. But it did have an unintended consequence of making people believe that there were agents like Mulder and Scully on the front lines of looking into supernatural phenomena. The FBI has even declared it one of the biggest myths about the agency. So do they really have a basement full of agent outcasts following up on claims of alien visitation and abductions?

If they did, honestly, they’re not going to tell us. But the FBI insists they do not. There was some activity at the bureau in 1947, when things like the crash near Roswell, New Mexico, prompted suspicion that a UFO had made a rough landing. The FBI offered its services to the predecessor of the Air Force, which initially agreed to allow agents to look into reports of flying saucers. This only lasted until 1950, though, when the FBI began turning over any such reports to the military.

Anytime any kind of supernatural element is present in an FBI case file, it’s usually because someone reported it to them. The agency has a file on a rash of unexplained cattle mutilations that occurred in the 1970s. But the file isn’t much more than acknowledgement that they were asked to look into it. They couldn’t because they generally didn’t have jurisdiction. 

In the late 1950s, the FBI also looked into claims of extra-sensory perception, or ESP. As the agency could find no scientific basis for it, they didn’t pursue the matter. 

If you’re looking to have someone examine a case of alien visitation, you can probably submit your evidence to NASA, which is marshaling more resources into investigating Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena. But you probably don’t need the FBI’s help unless that alien is also a serial killer.