The FBI Is Too White—And It Considers That a “Huge Operational Risk”

Topher Sanders, Mother Jones, March 18, 2018

For the FBI, the long-standing failure to diversify its ranks is nothing short of “a huge operational risk,” according to one senior official, something that compromises the agency’s ability to understand communities at risk, penetrate criminal enterprises, and identify emerging national security threats.

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It’s a charged moment for the FBI, one in which diversifying the force might not strike everyone as the most pressing issue.

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With some 35,000 employees and an annual budget around $9 billion, the FBI has an array of hiring problems, of which diversity is but one. It needs first-rate linguists and technologists to fight terrorism, and now, with ever greater urgency, cyber-crimes, yet starting pay for an agent in, say, Chicago is only around $63,600. In 2015, a human resources official told the bureau’s inspector general’s office that the agency attracted 2,000 eligible candidates to a recruiting event for its Next Gen Cyber Initiative, but only managed to hire two of them.

Yet diversity remains a persistent problem, with a bitter history and, as the FBI official conceded, real operational downsides.

Almost 30 years ago, a group of black agents sued the FBI, alleging systemic discrimination by the bureau in the quality of assignments, performance reviews, rates of promotions and overall workplace culture. At the time, about one in 20 agents were black. The numbers were even smaller in the FBI’s senior ranks.

A federal judge ultimately concluded there was “statistical evidence” of discrimination at the FBI, and a settlement was reached in 1993 promising reforms. But the black agents were back in court five years later, asserting the FBI had failed to deliver on its promises, and in 2001, another settlement was achieved. That agreement for the first time mandated that an outside mediator be used to handle future discrimination complaints at the bureau.

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Still, all these years later, the most recent statistics posted publicly by the FBI indicate the bureau remains far less diverse than the population it is drawn from. Black agents in 2014 made up a lower percentage of special agents than they did when the discrimination lawsuit was filed, dropping from around 5.3 percent in 1995 to 4.4 percent, according to the FBI website. About 13 percent of the U.S. population is black. And while nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population is Latino, Latinos made up just 6.5 percent of special agents.

ProPublica asked for the most current numbers behind the percentages for each race, but the bureau only provided white and nonwhite numbers.

Emmanuel Johnson, the lead plaintiff in the first discrimination suit brought by black agents in 1991, said he is not at all surprised to learn the bureau’s ranks are still overwhelmingly white, and he rejects what he said has been a common FBI lament: the difficulty of identifying quality, interested black applicants.

“I don’t believe it’s a recruiting problem, I believe it’s a hiring problem,” Johnson said. “It’s a very convenient excuse for the FBI—‘Oh, we can’t find them.’ Well, I don’t believe that’s true. This is how the hiring system works, because it’s controlled by whites.”

{snip} The bureau also will host between eight and a dozen recruiting events in 2018 focused on diversity.

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“There has always been a view that this is a white male organization and you guys—[minority agents]—are here primarily as an afterthought,” said Eric Bryant, a former special agent who retired in 2011 after nearly 25 years.

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The lawsuits brought by black agents over the years were chiefly handled by David Shaffer, a lawyer from Washington, D.C.  Shafer said the problems endure.

“I still represent minority and female agents,” he said. “They’re still suffering. They still deal with the same stereotypes they were almost 30 years ago.”

Shaffer and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sought to bring another case against the FBI around 2010 on behalf of black agents who felt they were being discriminated against in their effort to be promoted to more senior positions. To avoid the suit, Shaffer said, the bureau would simply promote each agent who had sought his legal help, preventing them from putting together a class of plaintiffs.

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