The FBI's Standard of Fairness

WILLIAM S. SESSIONS, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has had a crisis on his hands for more than a year now. In January of 1988 charges of racial harassment were leveled at the FBI by a black agent, Donald Rochon. His case, complicated by cross-allegations, is still being litigated.

In the ensuing months Mr. Rochon's charges have been amplified by a lawsuit from another black agent and by a class-action suit brought by over 300 Hispanic agents. Last September a federal judge in Texas ruled for the Hispanic plaintiffs, confirming discriminatory practices in assignments, transfers, and promotions.

The most prestigious law enforcement organization in the United States - which among other duties must uphold federal laws against discrimination - has thus been acquiring a huge black eye. Mr. Sessions recognizes this and has pushed for changes. This week he announced an overhaul of the bureau's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity Affairs, including more funding and a new director from outside the FBI. Racial sensitivity training has been strengthened too.

These steps should accelerate a process that began with J.Edgar Hoover's departure 17 years ago. Since then minority agents have grown from a handful to hundreds - though their numbers remain far short of Sessions' goal of having the agency more nearly reflect the nation's ethnic makeup.

The law schools at the University of Michigan and Ohio State University recently barred FBI recruiting because of the discrimination cases. That is added incentive for the bureau to purge racial bias. Sessions has noted an urgent need for new agents, since the FBI could lose nearly half its professional staff to retirement in the next decade.

Most important, however, is the FBI's position as a model for law enforcement agencies throughout the US. It should set a standard for fairness as well as investigative excellence.

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