NEW YORK — Dozens of retired black narcotics agents say their former agency, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, has discriminated against its African American employees for decades.
The group of retired agents said in a statement sent to news organizations this week that Attorney General William Barr was out of touch with racial disparities that permeate not only local police departments but federal law enforcement.
“This is a culture,” said Karl Colder, who previously oversaw the DEA’s Washington field division, served on the agency’s diversity committee and was one of 76 former agents involved in drafting the statement. “You still don’t have African Americans in positions to really monitor and ensure things are equal.”
The former agents pointed to a court ruling last year that said the DEA has failed to even the playing field for black agents seeking promotions.
The little-noticed ruling put the DEA on the hook for millions of dollars in back pay and attorneys’ fees in a civil rights lawsuit dating to 1977 — just four years after the agency’s founding. It also extended judicial oversight of DEA’s promotion practices and drew fresh attention to the lack of diversity within its senior leadership.
Barr recently told CBS he does not “think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist.” The retired agents disagreed, saying that “systemic racism has ended aspirations, careers and in some cases even lives.”
“Unfortunately, it has taken the despicable killing of George Floyd to awaken the collective conscience of the American people,” the retired agents wrote, referring to the police killing in Minneapolis. “For the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the country to be blinded to this notion is inconceivable and will continue to have detrimental consequences.”
A spokeswoman for Barr deferred comment to the DEA, which said it was precluded from commenting about “specific allegations” in light of the ongoing civil rights litigation.
The DEA said in a statement that its policies “make clear that racism and discrimination will not be tolerated.”
“DEA is committed to recruiting, retaining and promoting a workforce that reflects the diversity of our country and the people we serve,” the agency said. “That diversity is our strength and enables us to fulfill the responsibility entrusted to us by the American people to fairly and equally enforce the rule of law.”
Federal law enforcement agencies have long struggled to diversify their ranks, and it often has taken court intervention to address discriminatory hiring and promoting practices.
Former FBI Director James Comey said in 2018 that the bureau’s lack of diversity had become “a crisis” for an agency that agreed nearly two decades ago to overhaul its promotion and disciplinary procedures.
The civil rights case against the DEA has dragged on for decades despite a series of court orders governing the agency’s hiring and promotion practices. Black people still account for just 8% of the agency’s more than 4,000 special agents, according to court records, while more than 77% are white.
“We’re in a unique position of being black and blue,” said June Rogers, who previously led the DEA’s New England field office. “I’m really glad we’re at a point now where people are listening, but in order for us to change things, we’ve got to change minds and hearts.”
The DEA was first held liable in the early 1980s for discriminating against black agents in salary, promotions, supervisory evaluations and discipline.
Last year, a federal judge in Washington ruled the DEA had run afoul of court orders intended to remove the subjectivity from the agency’s promotion process. U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan reiterated that the agency owes damages to black agents whose careers were affected by what he called an “unlawful selection device.”
Attorneys for the black agents said they are still trying to determine how much money the DEA owes their clients. The DEA also could owe as much as $12 million in attorneys’ fees.
A half dozen retired black agents told AP that the “good ol’ boy” mentality is so entrenched at the DEA that it persisted even under black attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. They recalled colleagues who faced retaliation and exile for speaking out, and said the agency’s failure to diversify has hampered its ability to build trust.
“The only way it’s going to change is for the complete mindset to change,” said Ernest Howard, former special agent in charge of the DEA’s Houston field division.