Why the Secret Service will shell out $24 million to black agents

The agreement settles a protracted legal battle from 2000 initiated by 10 black agents who claimed Secret Service practices had violated the civil rights of black agents for decades.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (r.) with US Secret Service Deputy Director William Callahan speaks during a news conference about the security for the presidential inauguration on Jan. 13, 2017 in Dulles, Va. Mr. Johnson has said a $24 million settlement to black agents who accused the agency of racial discrimination was 'the right thing to do.'

The US Secret Service settled a 17-year-old lawsuit Tuesday, agreeing to pay a settlement of $24 million to a group of black agents who accused the agency of racism in the workplace. The lawsuit was filed in 2000 by a group of ten black agents; over time, more than 100 agents joined. Each of the original plaintiffs could receive as much as $300,000.

By making this payment, rather than going to trial, the Secret Service has taken a small but meaningful step toward reforming serious problems in its operations.

“Had the matter gone to trial, it would have required that we re-live things long past, just at a time when the Secret Service is on the mend," Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said in a statement. The Secret Service, tasked with protecting the first family, has faced increased scrutiny in recent years after several high-profile scandals and security lapses.

In November 2011, The Washington Post reported that the agency responded sluggishly after a gunman fired several shots at the White House; several agents were involved in a prostitution scandal during President Obama’s trip to Colombia in 2012. A December 2015 report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform logged a total of 143 security breaches on the agency’s watch from 2005 to 2015.

After that report’s release, The Christian Science Monitor reported that “‘poor leadership and a dysfunctional workplace have created a culture within the Secret Service that led to major security lapses, employee misconduct and low employee satisfaction and commitment scores,’ the Partnership for Public Service said. Furthermore, resource reductions and ‘unprecedented staffing shortages’ have added to agency pressures.”

Black agents fared particularly badly in this environment. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit “claimed the agency conducted unfair hiring, assignment and transfer practices while fostering a racially hostile workplace,” according to Reuters.

The agency’s settlement marks a willingness to turn over a new leaf, and to guard against further discrimination. Mr. Johnson added that making this payment was “simply the right thing to do.”

If the agency works to better recruit and retain black agents, it could help address one of its core problems: high attrition and turnover.

The House Committee’s 2015 Report found that  “almost seventy-four percent of the officers who left had between zero and five years of service, a situation that “perpetuates a young and inexperienced workforce.”

Ending discrimination could convince more black agents to stay on, and improve the career prospects for those that do. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Jennifer Klar, told reporters that, “At long last ... black Secret Service agents will not be constrained by the glass ceiling that held back so many for so long.”

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