Q&A: Agent on the job

American Experiment’s John Hinderaker interviews the Center’s newest policy fellow, a former FBI agent who will focus on public safety.

Jeff Van Nest, the newest senior policy fellow at Center of the American Experiment is a 20-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, having served in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Pakistan, and most recently in Minnesota. His experience includes counterterrorism, genocide war crimes, and general investigations. His most recent position with the FBI was Chief Division Counsel, serving as the top FBI lawyer in the Minnesota/Dakota region. Before joining the FBI, Van Nest received his law degree from the University of Wisconsin and served as a lawyer in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General Corps. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, where he teaches legal writing. John Hinderaker, the Center’s president, interviews Van Nest about how he’ll apply his background to help solve Minnesota’s growing challenges with public safety.

John Hinderaker: Jeff, what path led you to the FBI?

Jeff Van Nest: I have a distinct memory at the University of Minnesota when Jeff Jamar, the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis Field Office, spoke to our sociology class. SAC Jamar talked about the FBI’s global mission to protect Americans and uphold the Constitution. I was really intrigued with the idea of working in the FBI because my father served in the Air Force after college and stressed our family tradition of service to country. I did some research as to what background would make me competitive. I learned that the FBI hired a lot of attorneys and accountants. And so being a junior political science major at the U set me on a trajectory to law school.

After I graduated from the law school at the University of Wisconsin in 1994, I went into the Navy JAG Corps to work as a trial lawyer. The Navy initially sent me to San Francisco and then I transferred back to Washington for a total of five years’ active-duty service.

I had applied to both the FBI and the Secret Service and the Secret Service offered me a position first. So, I joined the Secret Service and later transferred to the FBI right after 9/11.

The Secret Service and FBI are similar agencies in that they both have a no fail mission and attract some of the most talented people in the national security field. However, the FBI’s mission is much broader in terms of working within the intelligence community and investigating a wider range of federal crimes worldwide. Several of my former Secret Service colleagues later joined me in the FBI.

You’ve mentioned that you lost a friend on board one of the aircraft during 9/11.

During my last assignment in the Navy, I was an appellate attorney at the Washington Navy Yard. One of my office mates and close friend, Mari-Rae Sopper, was on board American flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. She had accepted an offer to become the head gymnastics coach at the University of California-Santa Barbara and was in the process of moving to California.

Was that a factor that sparked your interest in counterterrorism?

It absolutely did. As you can imagine, after 9/11, the bureau was focusing resources on counterterrorism, and that’s where I ended up working the bulk of my career.

Describe counterterrorism. What were some of your responsibilities?

I started out as a case agent working international terrorism in the Los Angeles field office. My job was to open terrorism investigations, track down logical investigative leads, and put a case together for either prosecution or disruption. All of the cases I worked had some type of overseas nexus, so I did quite a bit of traveling in collaboration with foreign partners. I really developed an expertise in terrorist financing cases, in which we would trace money flows between the United States and overseas. And then I was promoted to FBI headquarters again at the counterterrorism division. My last assignment at FBI headquarters was heading up the Genocide War Crimes Unit, which was a new global investigative unit. Our focus was to locate war criminals who entered the U.S. and bring them to justice. A large part of my job was sharing information with allied governments, interviewing witnesses, and working with informants. Much of this work brought me to The Hague and Interpol Headquarters in Lyon, France to collaborate with our allies. I did that for two years before transferring here to the Minneapolis field office.

You eventually made your way to the Minneapolis office. What did you do there?

When I first came back to the Twin Cities I was the domestic terrorism supervisor on the Joint Terrorism Task Force. A task force is made up of both FBI agents and local law enforcement officers from various agencies around the metro. We worked cases together involving individuals or groups who committed violence in furtherance of a political goal or ideology. We had successes here in Minneapolis. We successfully disrupted a violent extremist who planned to attack a police station in western Minnesota and brought to justice a network of African expatriates in Minnesota and elsewhere who attempted to overthrow the West African country of The Gambia. After about two years or so, I slid into one of the two in-house counsel positions in the field office.

As in-house counsel, I handled all the legal and policy issues that would come up during criminal and national security investigations whereas the U.S. Attorney’s Office would lead criminal prosecutions in federal court. Other issues I routinely handled involved car accident claims, employment related litigation, and protection of FBI records.

I concluded as the chief division counsel here in the Twin Cities.

Why make the switch to public policy and Center of the American Experiment?

The defund the police movement, which directly threatened us all, has been thoroughly rejected. However, many of the extreme voices who pushed this ideology are still working to dismantle our justice system in other ways. I want to be part of a team that cuts through the noise and explains what works well and where we can innovate to make our justice system even more effective. We don’t need more proposals that undermine community safety. I want to help stop that.

I think my skills make me well suited to be an advocate for policies that work on behalf of police and to keep our communities safe.

Even though there has been a lot of anti-law enforcement sentiment, our own polling shows that the large majority of Minnesotans support law enforcement.

Political leaders and public figures who foster anti-police attitudes undermine our safety. Many of those voices still have not retracted their comments or expressed support for public safety and policing. It’s important work that we take steps to counteract that.

What contributes to rising crime rates in 2020 and 2021?

A number of factors. Certainly the COVID pandemic emptied our jails and prisons of individuals who had been convicted of serious crimes. Closing the schools left youth unsupervised and maybe emboldened to commit crimes they wouldn’t otherwise do. And then I do think that there is a “Ferguson Effect,” in which the police do not feel supported by the community and by leaders, both public figures and political officials. This curtails proactive policing, which sadly emboldens criminals.

You’ve already been writing about the revolving doors of our criminal justice system. What’s your take on that?

One of the tenants of so-called police reform involves cutting sentences for individuals who are a menace to society. We’ve seen it time and again: Individuals are put out on the streets, and data show there is a high likelihood of recidivism, and then we are essentially going out to solve crimes that could have been prevented had the individual been properly incarcerated.

How do we drive accountability on the part of county attorneys and judges?

The police can’t do their job unless individuals in the system support their work. So, it is an important conversation to have. And that’s not only with the police, but what works in prosecution, what works in incarceration, and eventually what works in rehabilitation. Those are all areas for conversation. First, accountability starts with understanding Minnesotans — through their elected representatives — created our justice system to keep us safe and hold wrongdoers accountable. The community expects key decisionmakers, such as prosecutors and judges, to enforce the laws as written while acting with compassion. Conversations on these and other topics at all levels of government with the community will go far to building support for our justice system and those sworn officers who keep us safe.

What projects will drive your early work here at the Center?

I like to call it Defund the Police 2.0. Public officials are currently hosting conversations about policing and public safety that include police abolitionists or prison abolitionists, without including input from police. I see that one of my roles here at the Center will be as a public convener who ensures that the voice of the police is included.

The Center recently sponsored a campaign that opposed a proposal by Minnesota’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission to make sentencing guidelines even more lenient than they already are.

Last fall, the Minnesota Sentencing Commission proposed changing a calculation for sentencing that might mean less time for felony offenders. A majority of the commission voted to do away with the in-custody point when determining an offender’s sentence. That means judges would no longer be able to take into consideration whether the offender committed the crime while in custody, on probation, or on supervised release. Those in favor of the change say it could potentially free up over 500 prison beds and argue that programs and probation do more to rehabilitate an offender than incarceration. American Experiment believed the proposed change undermined public safety because offenders could potentially serve less time and would be given less discretion in sentencing. In other words, it is highly relevant to consider what was the offender’s status in the system when they chose to commit another crime. During the initial round of public input, American Experiment organized a grassroots campaign to oppose the proposed sentencing guidelines change. The commission received over 3,500 comments with 95 percent opposing the change. As a result, the decision was tabled.

We’ve also launched the Criminal Injustice Tracker. This effort exposes judges and prosecutors who refuse to hold career criminals accountable for their crimes. The Criminal Injustice website will regularly post specific details of criminals and their crimes and the prosecutors and judges who spin them through the revolving door of justice so they can offend again.

How do you anticipate making use of the personal contacts you developed in your years in the FBI for your work at American Experiment?

I would like to become a resource for agencies and executives either in a public affairs capacity or in a policy capacity. For example, I’ve worked with community leaders, civic groups, and schools helping them understand how the criminal justice system works and what law enforcement professionals do to keep us safe. Hosting events in the community with local law enforcement leaders is a great way to build trust and confidence in their public safety work. We have a number of such town hall events scheduled around the state. On the policy front, I have deep experience working with various stakeholders to craft policy and legal solutions in areas such as body-worn cameras, use of force, crime mitigation strategy development, leadership development, and crisis communications. I welcome conversations with law enforcement leaders on these topics or any others in which I can offer insight.

Carjacking is a crime that’s gotten a lot of recent publicity. What’s behind that?

A good part of this goes back to the data that a very small segment of violent career criminals commit the vast number of crimes. There was an arrest recently of a couple from St. Paul who had committed upwards of 30 separate carjackings. I do believe that criminals are emboldened by the sense that they won’t be arrested, or at least in the short term, not punished by any significant measure. They commit one carjacking and nothing happens. And then they go on to commit more and nothing happens. Some of this is likely a result of under-staffing in our police departments where they’ve had to assign investigators to more serious crimes, like homicides or attempted murders. First and foremost, we need to make sure that repeat violent offenders are taken off the street and held in jail. Nothing is more demoralizing from the perspective of a law enforcement professional than turning someone loose who just committed a serious crime. The community loses faith in the system and the offender is free to hurt more people. Next, we need to make sure that our law enforcement leaders have the support and resources necessary to do their job. Finally, all stakeholders in the system should be oriented around ensuring justice is done on behalf of the innocent victim rather than focusing on negative repercussions for the criminal.

How will you measure the success of your work here at the Center?

One of the things that drew me to the Center is that it’s not the typical think tank. American Experiment policy professionals don’t merely diagnose problems, they conceive solutions. And the whole organization is dedicated to finding ways that encourage policymakers to enact those solutions. How many think tanks sponsor billboards all over their hometowns thanking the police for their service? That’s how I want my work to be judged: Have I prescribed solutions that make Minnesotans safer — and feel safer — and created a public discourse that helps enact them?

What are some of the policy priorities you’ll advocate in the coming legislative session?

One is returning police officers to our schools. You think about just the publicity surrounding targeted violence and school shootings around the country. Right now there is not one legislative requirement that law enforcement officers be involved in these threat mitigation teams. And we think that we would all benefit by having officers use their expertise in the schools to counteract any type of targeted violence. And so that’s one area we would expect to be on the legislative agenda this upcoming session.

We’ve seen the teachers’ union trying to push safety officers and law enforcement out of the schools.

Yes, and it’s that sort of activity that has unintended consequences, actually making our schools less safe and shows there really is a role for police, particularly in our larger schools. These officers have a real opportunity to develop connections within the community. To deprive them of that is to make them less effective. Having police officers in the schools allows students to interact with police — to see that they are here to help, that they are not a threat. It might also help recruit young people into careers in law enforcement. When they have a good encounter with one of the school resource officers, it’s a force multiplier. We should encourage that.

How is law enforcement in Minnesota generally viewed in the law enforcement community around the country?

Minnesota law enforcement is viewed very favorably in that it is one of the few states that requires at least an associate degree in order to take the licensure examination. And then you have to complete certain law enforcement curricula and pass a test, so it’s fairly selective here in Minnesota. Someone who chooses to go into law enforcement and put their life on the line for others is a noble calling.