The FBI – ‘Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity’ – is still working on diversity
By Topher Sanders
For the FBI, the longstanding 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.
Indeed, 10 months before being fired as director of the FBI by President Trump, James Comey called the situation a “crisis”.
“Slowly but steadily over the last decade or more, the percentage of special agents in the FBI who are white has been growing,” Comey said in a speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black school in Daytona Beach, Florida. “I’ve got nothing against white people — especially tall, awkward, male white people — but that is a crisis for reasons that you get, and that I’ve worked very hard to make sure the entire FBI understands.”
It’s a charged moment for the FBI, one in which diversifying the force might not strike everyone as the most pressing issue.
Trump has repeatedly questioned the bureau’s competence and integrity. Many Democrats blame Hillary Clinton’s defeat on Comey’s decision to announce that the bureau was reopening its inquiry into her emails days before the election. Republicans, echoing Trump’s attacks, have alleged that the FBI’s investigation of the president’s ties to Russia is a politically motivated abuse of power.
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.
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 US population is black. And while nearly 18 percent of the US 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.”
The FBI says it has made some progress since Comey promised to better address the crisis. In the summer of 2016, the FBI set a target that 40 percent of its special agent applications come from people of color. The bureau hit the target when 43 percent of those applying in 2017 were minorities. So far this year, the bureau said, 47 percent of those who have applied are people of color. The bureau also will host between eight and a dozen recruiting events in 2018 focused on diversity.
ProPublica is taking a look at the FBI this year as the nation’s top law enforcement agency confronts questions about its effectiveness, independence and culture. As part of this effort, we spent several weeks speaking with black former agents and officials about the FBI’s attempts to diversify. Nearly all said they loved their careers in the bureau and would recommend the job to others. One said black agents themselves had historically done too little to assist in effective recruitment. But others said the ranks of the bureau still harbor old attitudes about race, and that anyone considering it as a career should do so with eyes wide open.
“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.
- ProPublica is an independent, not-for-profit, investigative US online news and features magazine.
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