For the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 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 Donald 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 re-opening 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 United States 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 non-white 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.
By the early 1990s, Johnson had been a special agent with the FBI for almost two decades. He'd worked a full range of cases: violent crime racketeering by the mob terrorism.
But in 1991, he took on a very different kind of case, one that would consume years of his life and career: He sued his employer. He and other black agents alleged that white agents with similar qualifications and experience were frequently promoted over black agents, while qualified black agents were repeatedly not promoted, often for vague reasons like "lacking personal skills." When black agents were promoted, according to the lawsuit, it was to positions with less potential for future advancement.
Johnson, who served as an officer in the Marines prior to joining the FBI, said he was spurred to act after he read an article in an FBI bulletin that instructed supervisors to watch female and minority agents and employees more closely and to document any problems, so that if those agents were fired, the bureau could stave off any legal challenges.
Johnson said he went to his supervisors with the bulletin and questioned whether it represented how the bureau thought of minority agents. After that exchange, he said, his supervisors began criticizing his performance and creating a document trail.
"That's what really pissed me off," Johnson said in a recent interview. "These were the people who made the decisions. They proved that it was even worse than I thought."
James Talley entered the FBI as special agent in 1991. Within a year, he was enlisted to recruit for the agency. In 1992, he said, a senior white agent told him how happy he was to see Talley, who is African American, at a recruiting event with black candidates. The white agent said that for years he had been unable to adequately handle the questions he faced when recruiting at black universities—questions Talley would soon face himself.
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"He was just happy that I would do it," Talley said of the white senior agent. "Even though he was the guy in charge of basically the Eastern Seaboard."
V.O. Little did some recruiting too. Little retired from the bureau in 2017 after 26 years of service. For 17 years, in addition to his regular work, he also flew around the country talking to candidates at job fairs and conventions for black fraternities and sororities.
Little said his experience taught him that each field office—the bureau has 56 in the U.S.—plays a key role in recruiting. Field office recruiters decide which candidates can take the initial test to apply for the FBI. There is some national oversight of recruiting, Little said, but not a lot.
"So you could have a terrible recruiter in a field office," Little said. "That recruiter may not be receptive to diversity."
Little and others said the test itself could be a hurdle, as well as the overall length of the application process, which could last as long as a year. The bureau has recently revamped the test, swapping out a significant math portion for testing that focuses more on how candidates think and reason through problems.
The formal interview stage of the application process could present its own kind of Catch-22 problem, Little and others said. The three-person interview panels were often dominated by white men, perhaps not the best audience for applicants of diverse backgrounds with unique strengths and weaknesses. Talley acknowledged that white panelists might bring negative perceptions of black applicants to the interviews, but said that need not prove decisive. Black applicants ought to be impressive enough to conquer such stereotypes, he said.
Julian Stackhaus, who retired in 2000 after two decades with the bureau, was one of the original plaintiffs in the 1991 suit. He believed in the case, he said, but today says black agents share responsibility for their underrepresentation at the agency. He said if current black agents each made an effort to recruit just one black agent a year, the number of black agents would improve significantly over time.
"African-American agents, in my opinion, have been derelict in bringing in other African-American agents," he said.
Talley, who said white agents at times seemed intimated by black youth, said retired agents such as himself should be better utilized by the bureau to help recruit. He suggested the bureau create a formal program because, even if current agents did a better job, there simply aren't enough black agents in the bureau at any one time to get the job done.
"I think that would be more effective than having a white person who really doesn't want to do it," he said.
Former agent Edward Dickson actually helped to put together a plan that would do exactly what Talley suggested—the Special Agent Volunteer Initiative. Dickson said Comey approved the initiative a couple of years ago, but the bureau's commitment was fleeting.
"It was not fully embraced and it was left to die on the vine," he said. "I don't know what you could do to get it started again, and I don't think they care. Nobody owned it, nobody invested in it, and nobody of color was running it."
Asked about that assertion, a spokesperson with the FBI stressed the agency is committed to increasing diversity among women and minorities.
"This is important, and it is a goal we are actively working to achieve," Lauren Hagee said in an email. "We know we are best able to protect the nation when we look like and represent the communities we serve. We know diversity increases cultural competence. We also know that once we understand and leverage the full diversity of our workforce, our operations and investigative and analytical insight are more effective."
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.
"We had about three named plaintiffs to start with, and the FBI promoted them," he said. "So we replaced them with more people that needed to be promoted and the FBI promoted them. We never got a chance to fix the system because the FBI wasn't really interested in doing that. They just wanted to make the case go away."
The FBI had no direct response to Shaffer's comments.
In a 2016 speech at a diversity recruiting event at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, Comey spotlighted an FBI training initiative in which agents study the bureau's interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and write essays about King. The bureau surveilled King and attempted, in Comey's words, to "destroy" him during the civil rights movement.
Comey said he wanted new agents to "stare at a piece of our own history."
"Our design there is to make people think deeply, to understand how the values that we aspire to hold were implicated in the way we acted with respect to Dr. King," Comey said. "I can't change history, but I can change the way people think about our values and embrace our values."