Frustrated by Attorney General William P. Barr’s recent comments on police and racism, a group of more than 75 retired black Drug Enforcement Administration special agents from across the country are speaking out about systemic racism in the agency.
In a joint message, the former agents said the DEA suffers from a dearth of black agents across the agency as well as in supervisory positions. They point to a class-action lawsuit filed 40 years ago that continues to be litigated to this day and to the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“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,” according to the statement, prepared by the group and shared with The Baltimore Sun as part of an effort to raise awareness. “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.”
They’re referring to comments Barr made earlier this month, on CBS’s “Face the Nation”: “There’s racism in the United States still, but I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist.”
The retired agents say that just 8% of nearly 4,500 special agents as of last fall were black. Similarly, just four of 50 senior executives are black. Last year, a federal judge ruled in the class-action suit first brought in 1977 that the DEA needed to take more steps to cure systemic race bias in promotions to the detriment of black agents.
“This begs the question that if the DOJ will not abolish the 40-plus years of racism in one of its component law enforcement agencies, how can they expect police departments to do the same?” their statement says.
A DEA spokesman said the agency could not comment on the ongoing litigation, but said in a statement that the DEA is “committed to recruiting, retaining and promoting a workforce that reflects the diversity of our country and the people we serve.” The statement also said “all DEA employees are expected to uphold the values of fairness, justice and equality” and there are policies in place that “make clear that racism and discrimination will not be tolerated.”
The U.S. population is about 13% black. Other federal law enforcement agencies also struggle with diversity: the FBI said last year that 11.3% of its workforce was black, and only 4.6% of special agents.
June Werdlow Rogers was the special agent in charge for the DEA’s New England region from 2002 to 2008. She also served two stints with the DEA in Baltimore, spanning about a decade in the 1980s and 1990s.
She said white counterparts expressed concern for her when she took over the New England field office, worried that as a black supervisor she could feel isolated or face discrimination. She supervised hundreds of agents, and said only a handful at a given time were black.
“They said, ‘You’re isolate. There’s no one that looks like you,‘” she recalled. “I said something to the effect of, ‘What you don’t understand is: The DEA [as a whole] looks just like the New England field division.‘”
Gary Tuggle, who was special agent in charge of the Baltimore field office and served as interim Baltimore Police commissioner in 2018, said he thinks the problem has worsened in recent years.
“The DEA hasn’t had an African American female special agent in charge in years,” Tuggle said. “That’s ridiculous.”
Ernie Howard, who was the special agent in charge in Houston from 1997 to 2001, said there is “not an even playing field.”
“As much as people want to say that things are changing, I question whether we are progressing at all,” said Howard, 75. “I grew up in racism. I’ve been through the civil rights movement, been to Vietnam, been through the war on drugs. I have yet to see a lot of major progress go on.”
Tuggle and Rogers say the lack of black agents and supervisors hurts the enforcement actions the agency takes.
“There has to be a blanket understanding within law enforcement across the country that there are implicit biases in all of us, and we have to deal with that as a police leader,” Tuggle said. “We have to be willing to have those tough conversations throughout the organizations, but at the same time we have to set the philosophical tone at the very highest level of the organizations and have that permeate throughout, to say we’re not going to stand for racism in any form or fashion from anybody, and that is not acceptable.”
Rogers recalled while an agent in Baltimore she was pulled over and questioned despite showing her DEA credentials until a white DEA supervisor intervened, and that a magistrate judge once confused her for a defendant in court.
She said that an executive order on police reform that President Donald Trump signed Wednesday failed to mention the need for implicit bias training, among other things.
“If you’re not willing to acknowledge that this real problem exists, how can you put anything in place that can stop the problem?” Rogers said.