Drug agency told to review hiring, disciplinary practices

To address concerns about discrimination against minority and female special agents, the Drug Enforcement Administration should conduct a comprehensive review of its recruiting, promotion and disciplinary practices, the General Accounting Office said Thursday.

In a study of the DEA's personnel procedures (GAO-03-413), GAO found that from fiscal 1997 to fiscal 2001, the agency promoted agents at similar rates regardless of race or gender. But the congressional investigators noted that over the same time period, the agency recommended African-Americans and Hispanics for promotions to GS-14 and GS-15 level special agent positions at lower rates than whites.

This discrepancy came to light in a 1999 case brought before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In September 1999, the court ruled that the DEA needed to rethink its procedures for recommending African-Americans for GS-14 and GS-15 promotions. The agency has since altered its recommendations process, but the issue has not been completely resolved and the court will eventually need to approve whatever new procedures are implemented, GAO said.

DEA also disciplined African-American, Hispanic and female agents at higher rates than other demographic groups, GAO found. For instance, from 1997 to 2001, African-Americans made up 8.3 percent of the agency's workforce but 16 percent of those agents disciplined. Women made up 7.8 percent of DEA agents but 13 percent of those disciplined.

"DEA does not know why these differences exist, nor does any study offer a reason for them," GAO said. The agency asked two contractors to study whether its discipline system is fair to minorities. The studies concluded that the system was fair, but one was conducted in 1986 and the other only compared the discipline of African-Americans to that of whites, excluding other racial groups and women from the analysis.

DEA should undertake another study of its discipline system, GAO recommended, taking the treatment of all minority groups into account. The watchdog agency also recommended that DEA continually monitor hiring and promotion statistics for all racial, ethnic and gender groups, to ensure that discrepancies do not arise. Where differences do occur, the agency should figure out the cause and look for ways to eliminate discrepancies without compromising the quality of its agents.

By sharing statistics with special agents, DEA could "help [them] formulate informed views about the fairness and equity of the promotion and discipline processes," the report said. Perceptions that the agency engages in discriminatory practices "may have been driven in part by a lack of data and other information because DEA did not widely share analyses of its [personnel practices]," the congressional investigators added.

A 1981 class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia first called the DEA's treatment of minorities into question. The court found that the agency discriminated against African-American special agents, resulting in differences in promotions and pay and disparate treatment in work assignments. DEA has taken steps to remedy most of these problems, but has not come up with complete solutions to all of them, according to GAO.

Continued complaints from minority special agents at the DEA prompted Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, to request the GAO study. Johnson chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.

In response to the GAO report, DEA officials said they would review each step of the special agent hiring process to make sure it is fair to minorities, maintain and analyze a database of reliable discipline statistics, and alter promotion recommendation processes with the approval of the district court.