By Daniel J Vaccaro
Everyone knows “NCIS” – the TV show that has been lighting up the small screen for the last 15 years.
But not everyone knows the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the federal agency on which the show is based.
Thanks to Andrew Traver, director of the real NCIS, a lot more people now do.
Traver was on the Auraria Campus Oct. 12 to discuss his work at the agency and to share advice with MSU Denver students looking to get into the field. Speaking to a standing-room only crowd of more than 300, he set the record straight on the differences between real life and TV.
“The actual stuff we do is not that exciting,” he said. “None of it gets done in 48 minutes. It wouldn’t make for compelling television.”
NCIS’s work includes investigating criminal activity that impacts the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, everything from local investigations to international counterterrorism operations to cyberwarfare. There are 1,000 NCIS agents worldwide, a third of whom are deployed abroad.
Traver said that the wild success of the TV show and its spinoffs has had positive ramifications, making the agency’s work culturally relevant and helping attract recruits.
His own road to becoming the fifth civilian director of the NCIS was a winding one. He described himself as the “least likely director to have ever been.”
In fact, he wanted to be a marine biologist in high school. An Illinois native, he applied to colleges on the coasts, but ultimately, his parents talked him into staying closer to home. He decided to study medicine instead, but that lasted only until his first calculus course. With tuition rates rising and still lacking direction, he left one college and enrolled at an in-state school, Northern Illinois University. An intro class in criminal justice was his first taste of what would become a 30-year career as a federal agent.
Commissioned as a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 1987, Traver began his career in Chicago, where he investigated violent gang-related crime. All told, he served with ATF for more than 25 years, with a brief stint in Denver starting in June 2012.
Traver became the NCIS director in 2013 and has been with the agency for four years.
His favorite part of the job: “Going to places I never thought I’d go,” he said. “I get to travel to our host nations, share best practices, and help them get better, so we can get better”
Compared to his field work with the ATF, his role at NCIS is far more administrative. He discussed some of the changes he’s implemented since taking on the directorship, which have included an emphasis on tactical training and better communication.
He said – only somewhat tongue-in-cheek – that he knows the changes have been successful because they’ve shown up on the TV shows.
During the Q&A portion of the event, Traver talked about what he thinks college criminal justice programs should be teaching students, particularly as the world becomes more technology-focused.
“I’m afraid that the knowledge of how to talk to real people is going to disappear,” he said. “You need to know how to interact with people, recruit sources, develop informants. It’s very difficult, very nuanced work.”
He also noted that students applying for jobs with the agency will have a leg up if they speak multiple languages.
Although Traver downplayed his leadership skills during the program, he demonstrated one quality all great leaders share – he was extremely generous with his time. After the event ended, he spoke with individual students for more than 45 minutes. And earlier in the day, he spent time with Auraria Campus police. The evening prior, he spoke at an event geared toward MSU Denver alumni.
These visits were made possible through Traver’s connection to MSU Denver President Janine Davidson, Ph.D. The two worked together at the Navy. One of Davidson’s top focus areas is bringing high-level speakers to campus to share their expertise.
Traver shared a variety of anecdotes during his talk and even showed a video clip of a cameo he once made on “NCIS: Los Angeles,” which he said is a rite of passage for all directors of the agency.
Despite having spent his career coming face to face with some of the world’s toughest criminals, he described his TV debut as “terrifying.”
“I have never done any formal acting on any level,” he said. “I was on screen for 45 seconds, but it took six hours to film.”
Apparently, Traver prefers to stick to what he’s best at – catching “bad guys” in the real world.
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