FORT DEVENS — Snipers don’t like it when you touch their guns.
Expert firearms instructors and law enforcement officials at the highest levels of the Department of Homeland Security can’t get near them without their owners growling possessively.
But on a recent sunny Thursday, two DHS snipers cheerfully let a Hull selectwoman, a Harvard academic, a criminal defense attorney, and a newspaper reporter handle two enormous M4 rifles.
Each civilian took turns lying flat on a grassy floor and peering into the rifle’s telescopic lens. One hundred feet away, on a blue plastic barrel, was the target: a blond rubber head. The instructor, a compact, powerfully built sharpshooter who has patrolled rooftops at the Boston Marathon and the Republican National Convention, told the group to gently squeeze the trigger when the head was in view. That was all it took to release the bullet from the chamber and deliver a small thrill — and a terrifying lesson of how easy it is to take a life.
Welcome to the Homeland Security Investigations Citizens Academy, Class of 2019.
For seven weeks, 13 civilians attended a weekly three-hour class on the myriad units within HSI, the investigative branch of the Department of Homeland Security. They watched PowerPoint presentations on cybercrime and sex trafficking investigations, toured the Seaport and Logan Airport to see how agents respond to security threats, and took part in simulated scenarios in which they frisked suspects, took down drug dealers, and performed rescue operations of undercover agents.
Notably absent from the academy syllabus was the work of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, specifically its work arresting and removing unauthorized immigrants from the country. Jason Molina, acting special agent in charge for HSI in New England, said the academy makes a point of showcasing the often overlooked law enforcement work done by agents within HSI.
“Every day in the media, you turn on the television, you’re reading the newspapers and you’re hearing about ICE,” he told the class during one session. “Our mission is to protect the homeland, protect the community. . . . We hope you take that back with you and tell your family and friends about it.”
Even before President Trump’s aggressive immigration policies cast a critical focus on the agency, the Department of Homeland Security had become nearly synonymous with ICE, which it oversees.
DHS was established after the Sept. 11 attacks with a mandate to protect the country against terrorism and international security threats. But it has gained more attention in recent years as the subject of lawsuits accusing it of trampling on the rights of immigrants and tearing families apart at the Mexican border.
The citizens academies started in 2013 in Puerto Rico and have since been held in Florida, New York, and Los Angeles. The classes held over the summer in and around Boston were the first time the academy had come to New England.
The reason for the academies? In a word, marketing.
“It’s us being able to market ourselves the way we should think we should be,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Michael Krol, who led many of the sessions. “There is amazing work being done here.”
And it’s not as easy as it looks on television. At Fort Devens, instructors showed how to rescue an undercover agent who had just been exposed. Academy members were split into groups of four and told to run into the makeshift building where the agent was being held by armed criminals.
“Stick together!’ the instructors barked, barely holding back their laughter as one group scrambled wildly into the building.
“I got shot, I think,” one participant said after his group came back from their failed rescue, red-faced and sweaty.
Many said the classes gave them a new perspective on the agency’s work.
“I’ve talked a lot about the experience,” said Jennifer Constable, a Hull selectwoman and assistant town administrator in Rockland, who was invited to the academy by one of the agents. “When I take a ferry in and pass the Seaport, I see it a little bit differently now. I don’t take for granted anymore that there are people on the ground every day protecting us.”
Horace Ling, a program director at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said he was impressed with the professionalism and intelligence of the agents.
Ling said he was especially struck by the complicated, often heartbreaking work of investigators who have broken up sex-trafficking rings overseas and freed dozens of children who were victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.
But Ling said the next academy should include participants who are likely to be skeptical of HSI’s message.
“People in the immigrant community, the dreamers who are losing their immigration status and are worried about that,” Ling said by way of example. “I think that’s part of the problem with the government in general: They need to do a better job of publicizing the work they do. Right now, we’re in a time where people don’t trust the government and don’t trust law enforcement.”
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit that has filed multiple lawsuits against ICE and the Trump administration on behalf of immigrants, said the academies have the potential to engender trust in immigrant and minority communities. But he questioned whether participants are getting the full story.
“I do wonder to what extent these citizens academies are actually being used to generate good PR as opposed to meaningfully exposing people to some of the thorniest dynamics and enforcement activities that organizations like HSI are routinely in,” he said.
HSI Special Agent Greg Boucher, one of the academy’s instructors, said the agency reached out to people in academia, politics, and the media to “build relationships” with professionals in those fields. Some had backgrounds in law enforcement and security, and many either already knew some of the agents or had worked with them in the past. Some participants were employees in the Massachusetts office of the US attorney.
Boucher worked as a police officer for 11 years in Lewiston, Maine, and often reached out to members of the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods to foster trust within those communities. Boucher said it makes sense for the federal government to do the same.
“Absolutely we want to bring in people who are skeptical, because our goal is to show people what we do,” he said. “So at the end of the process, we end up becoming partners and creating a relationship and turned around their skepticism. We’re doing it for the right reasons.”