An ATF Agent is someone who works for the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives colloquially referred to as the “ATF” or, more formally, the BATFE. Part of the U.S. Department of Justice, this agency is tasked with monitoring the illegal trafficking or manufacture of firearms, explosives, alcohol, and tobacco. The agency also investigates other criminal acts related to their area of expertise, notably bombings and acts of arson.
The cases the ATF takes on naturally overlap with other federal and state agencies. ATF Special Agents are granted broad authority, particularly with federal criminal cases involving firearms, explosives and the smuggling of controlled substances like cigarettes. Agents are also permitted to lead narcotics investigations independent of other agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security, and others.
ATF Special Agents carry a huge amount of jurisdictional authority, investigative powers, and responsibilities in general. Individuals seeking a career as an ATF agent must, therefore, have exemplary credentials, clean background history and extensive experience in law enforcement or investigation.
What Does an ATF Agent Do?
ATF Special Agents have a broad scope of duties and responsibilities. Their primary role is to investigate criminal cases for federal crimes involving explosives, arson, illegal firearm sales or trafficking and the illegal trafficking or manufacture of alcohol and tobacco products. These duties require them to analyze activities across the entire country, often honing in on suspected or alleged crimes that cross state lines.
Trypical Duties & Responsibilities
Because of the large scope of ATF responsibilities, they tend to rely on task force officers at the state and local level to help them conduct their investigations or interact with criminal suspects. Organizing information at the state, local, and federal levels often requires ATF Special Agents to be masters of coordinating investigations on multiple scales and in multiple places at once. ATF Special Agents are also tasked with the duties of a typical field officer, which can include:
- Investigating violations of Federal Law
- Performing field investigations, including searching for physical evidence and crime scene analysis
- Analyzing evidence and piecing together cases for prosecution
- Interviewing suspects and witnesses
- Arresting suspects
- Filing for search warrants and executing them
- Preparing concise criminal investigative reports
- Testifying on behalf of the Federal Government in grand jury hearings and in court
- Some senior positions may be tasked with administering and managing ongoing investigations or field office activities
One tool that can help ATF Special Agents is that everyone is granted Top Secret (TS) security clearance. This level of clearance gives them access to evidence, data, and reports not normally available to other law enforcement officers. Higher levels of clearance are sometimes needed, corresponding to Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance. Such clearances require ATF Special Agents to be vetted by rigorous Single Scope Background Investigations and to operate with the utmost discretion.
ATF Special Agents put all of these resources to good use, too. The ATF consistently ranks highly in the percentage of cases that are referred to prosecution, the number of arrests made and the average time spent per defendant.
Where Does an ATF Agent Work?
The ATF maintains field offices in major cities throughout the United States. Their primary headquarters are in Washington, D.C. Other major field offices are located in New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; Philadelphia, PA; Chicago, IL; Atlanta, GA; Miami, FL; Phoenix, AZ; San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA; Denver, CO; Dallas, TX and other major metropolitan areas. Remote field offices also exist in Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Canada, Iraq, and the Caribbean.
ATF Agent Salaries & Job Outlook
According to the ATF website, typical salaries for a Special Agent correspond to standardized pay grades. The base salary is $33,829 (Grade 5, Step 1) and the maximum salary for a typical starting field agent is $42, 948 (Grade 9, Step 1). A percentage of locality pay (14.16% to 35.15%) is also added corresponding to the pay structure of the local field office and the cost of living associated with the area.
Agents have the potential to be promoted up to grade 13, or approximately $73,000 to $96,000 a year. Promotions are based on exemplary fieldwork and a demonstrated ability to take on added responsibilities.