FBI’s top female field agent

Valerie Parlave '87 FBI Agent

Valerie Parlave ’87

When FBI agent Valerie Parlave ’87 recalls the carnage of the Washington Navy Yard, the image that comes to mind is a bullet-pierced sweater. It was three days after the Sept. 16, 2013, shooting rampage that left 12 dead and four wounded, and she was touring the epicenter of the horror. In the room where officers killed the shooter, she saw the sweater, neatly draped across a cubicle.

“It represents what happened,” said Parlave, who led the bureau’s response to the shooting. “There were purses, shoes, bags, clothes, all left right where the workers left them before this tragic thing happened. It is overwhelming to think of the officers going into that building.”

That attention to detail, contemplative attitude, and concern for line officers and agents is what propelled Parlave to her post as the bureau’s highest-ranking female agent in the field, the first to command the Washington Field Office.

Parlave oversees 800 agents and 800 other employees who handle sensitive investigations ranging from public corruption and terror cells to international spy rings and health care fraud. The office also responds to major incidents such as the September 11 terrorist attacks; the 2002 Washington, D.C., sniper shootings; and last year’s Navy Yard shootings.

Within minutes of the first gunfire that September morning, Parlave was drawing on relationships she had cultivated during her two-decade career, calling in help from tactical teams, evidence technicians, and agents to conduct interviews. Her regular contacts with local police leaders meant that there was none of the typical federal-local friction, said Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier. “She’s very easy to work with. There is no ego with her.”

Parlave keeps her brown hair short and tends toward plain gray suits and black turtleneck sweaters. “She is calm, a cerebral person,” said Agent Kevin Perkins, associate deputy director of the FBI. “She will sit through an entire meeting and not say a thing. And then when she speaks, people listen.”

She was more interested in golf than in FBI work when she met a former agent while caddying at a course in her hometown of Naples, N.Y. Then a student at Colgate, she’d never seriously considered leaving western New York until she listened to the former agent’s stories of intrigue and adventure. “I thought: that sounded like fun,” she said.

Parlave, who earned a law degree from Albany Law School, said she didn’t think twice about entering a field where women were the exception. When she joined the FBI in 1991, about 12 percent of agents were women, according to news reports at the time. Today, the bureau says 19.4 percent of its 13,598 agents and 21.5 percent of its senior executives are women.

At 5′ 5″ tall, Parlave was expected to chase suspects through alleys and fight like the male agents. She did, and says she didn’t confront much sexism. Parlave started in Las Vegas, as a 26-year-old assigned to investigate bank robberies and track violent fugitives. “[That year] was one of the best of my life,” she said. “It was non-stop action.”

The fun ended when her supervisor learned that she had a law degree. He assigned her to oversee the drafting of complex affidavits required to get wiretaps. As part of that assignment, Parlave worked closely with drug and gang task forces. It could take months or even years to build a case, from the first drug purchases by undercover agents until the final take-downs.

In 2000, she was promoted to work on planning and policy at FBI headquarters. Three years later, she returned to the field in Miami, where she oversaw a gang squad and helped lead the investigation into a drug smuggling operation that netted a seizure of more than 23 tons of cocaine. She proudly displays a photo in her spacious eighth-floor office of the container ship that had hauled the drugs from Colombia to Miami.

— By Del Quentin Wilber; used with permission of Bloomberg L.P. Copyright ©2014. All rights reserved.

UPDATE: Following the publication of this article, Parlave was appointed executive assistant director of the FBI’s human resources branch, including the training and security divisions.

One Response

  1. Maureen Coffey

    More women in the police force and body cameras – that’s probably the solution going forward. There are too few high-profile women on cases and also too few who roam the streets. Otherwise we would not have “cat calling”, recently in the news again. And body cameras have been shown to result in over 80% of respondents (i.e. those who got into contact with officers) to be satisfied about their treatment.

    Since both don’t cost more (cameras are a negligible investment and women, if they replace a certain contingent of men otherwise hired in their place, cost exactly “nothing” but could make a world of difference).