From the White House to the Portland City Council, November’s election exposed the deep distrust many have in government. Indeed, 2016 was the year of the political outsider.
The former top FBI agent in Oregon said police need to do more to engage with their communities. That’s especially the case with the strong anti-government sentiment that’s become part of the national discourse and loomed large during the election, he said.
Outgoing special agent in-charge Greg Bretzing spoke with OPB’s Conrad Wilson about how federal officials should adapt to rising anti-government sentiment and the FBI’s role under President Donald Trump. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Q&A with outgoing Special Agent In Charge Greg Bretzing
Conrad Wilson: How is the FBI operating right now in an environment where there is an obvious reliance and need for the bureau, but also a lot of skepticism toward its operations?
Greg Bretzing: There’s no denying that there’s part of that in the environment right now. And it’s anti-establishment. In certain circles, there’s an anti-police sentiment. That makes the job of the police very difficult. But what it reinforces is the need of law enforcement on all levels to be connected with and aware of what’s happening in their communities.
But actually, the need is for us to engage further and on a deeper level and on a grass roots level with the community, the community organizations and with those who do not feel like they’re being adequately served. Whether the distrust is a fact or a perception, either way it’s something that needs to be talked about, addressed upfront.
Wilson: Are there things federal law enforcement can do to better to connect with people who distrust them?
Bretzing: Yes, there’s always stuff we can do better. That’s one of those big open-ended questions, are there things we can do better? We need to be as connected to the community as we can be. I meet with people across the spectrum. I’ll meet individually and we’ll have very frank conversations and very transparent conversations. And I will tell you that when we have those meetings, they’re respectful, they’re honest and they’re direct.
President Donald Trump has gone out of his way to articulate his support for police and other law enforcement. But the FBI has been criticized for its role in the presidential election, especially how it handled the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails.
Wilson: What are the sort of challenges or opportunities that the FBI might face under the Trump administration?
Bretzing: You know, I’m going to tell you this and you’re not going to believe me, but it’s not going to give us any challenges. We’re going to do the work that we’re supposed to do. And that’s what we do regardless of who’s in the White House or who’s in any house. The bureau is an apolitical organization. We address federal law. We have investigative people from all different backgrounds, all different politics. If you’re doing something wrong, if you’re breaking federal law, then that’s something we’re going to look at regardless of the political persuasion. And I know sometimes people will grin at that or say, ‘Yeah right.’
Wilson: Especially with FBI Director James Comey wading into the election. I think a lot of people would see the FBI, maybe people that hadn’t seen it political before, as engaging in politics. That’s certainly not a surprise to you to hear that.
Bretzing: That’s where we go back to those perceptions, perspectives and how people view certain things. I will tell you that— and good people can disagree on tactics somebody takes or decisions someone makes — but I can say this: I’ve been in the FBI for 22 years and I’ve been proud to be part of this organization. That’s because what I see across the board is men and women trying to do the right thing, trying to serve their country. I don’t want to sound too Boy Scout-ish, but it’s truly what they are attempting to do. Have we made mistakes? Absolutely. The FBI has made mistakes and will continue to make mistakes. We try not to. But when we do, we need to acknowledge them and then fix them, and then try not to repeat them.