Written by Adam Goldman
Women who were once FBI recruits sued the bureau Wednesday, accusing it of running a “good-old-boy network” at its training academy that discriminates against women, in some cases because of race and disabilities in addition to gender, and sets them up to fail.
According to the lawsuit, male instructors at the academy in Quantico, Virginia, exposed the women beginning in 2015 to a hostile work environment, sexual harassment and inappropriate jokes. One woman said that an instructor referred to an African-American female trainee as “spaghetti head,” a reference to her braids. The woman also said training agents made repeated sexual advances.
In particular, the lawsuit takes aim at the tactical training that plays out in Hogan’s Alley, the academy’s mock town, where hired actors play terrorists and criminals. Trainees practice making dangerous arrests where they use weapons. Many of the female agent recruits were kicked out of the academy during this phase more quickly and more often than men were.
“The real purpose of the suit is to change the culture of the FBI,” said David J. Shaffer, the lawyer for the women.
The suit also named the former FBI director James B. Comey and Mark Morgan, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Comey is accused by one woman of dismissing her complaints and Morgan, who oversaw the academy as a former top FBI official and was involved in the dismissal of female trainees. Comey declined to comment. Morgan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Out of the sixteen women who sued, seven continue to work for the FBI. Some women did not use their full names, fearing retaliation. As part of the lawsuit, they asked for a review of the training evaluation process; $300,000 each for emotional stress; and more female training instructors.
The FBI declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said in a statement that it was “committed to fostering a work environment where all of our employees are valued and respected.” Internal figures provided by the FBI show the bureau’s efforts to recruit more women are gaining traction. The FBI said the number of women applying to be agents had increased to 36 per cent this year from 22 per cent in 2017, surpassing the bureau’s goal of 33 per cent for the current fiscal year.
Attorney General William P. Barr said last month that he had directed the Justice Department to investigate accusations of discrimination, including claims that the FBI academy forced out male potential agents for not being “masculine enough.”
The lawsuit comes as the FBI, historically a male-dominated law enforcement agency, is trying to increase its ranks of female agents. Women made up only a fifth of the bureau’s 13,500 agents as of October, and only a few women work in the agency’s top echelons.
In the lawsuit, the majority of the women took issue with many aspects of the FBI’s agent training program. It typically lasts 20 weeks and involves firearms, academics, defensive tactics and navigating high-risk situations.
According to the lawsuit, instructors overseeing the tactical training, most of whom are men, penalized and dismissed female trainees at a “rate significantly and disproportionately higher than their male counterparts.” The men, the lawsuit said, are allowed to retake tactical exams while women are denied the same opportunity.
When the women tried to defend their decision-making or their actions, instructors admonished them for lacking integrity or emotional maturity, they said in the lawsuit.
They also accused instructors of employing a double standard for men. “When male trainees do the same, they are praised for having a ‘command presence,’” the lawsuit said.
One of the women, Clare Coetzer, washed out of training in June 2018 after passing all the previous required courses. During training, she was written up four times and given a warning that the FBI calls a “suitability notice,” which put her in jeopardy of being kicked out of the program.
But, Coetzer said, a male instructor rescinded two such notices that male colleagues received. She said she performed well on future tests but was still bounced from training.
Another woman, Erika Wesley, who worked for the FBI for six years, completing an assignment in Baghdad before leaving the agency in 2010 before her first child was born. She attended training in 2018 to become an analyst. Wesley said she was subjected to “inappropriate sexually charged commentary” by male instructors, with some saying that women needed to take birth control to control their moods.
When Lauren Rose, who works in the FBI’s Miami field office, complained in an email in 2015 to Comey, the director at the time, about discriminatory practices, he rebuffed her. Comey suggested she use her “pain” to reflect on strengths and weaknesses, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says Morgan was involved in Rose’s dismissal from the academy in 2015 and that he took issue with her “attitude” at the time. Rose said in the lawsuit she had “exemplary history of performance reviews” before her training and after as an FBI employee.
Female trainees were sometimes offered other FBI positions after being kicked out of training but were “forced to take positions several grades lower than their previous grade or experience justified,” according to the lawsuit.
Some of the same women filed a complaint last year with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the FBI of engaging in similar practices. Shaffer said his clients decided to sue after the FBI ignored the complaint.
“I asked the FBI twice to sit down before this lawsuit, and the FBI would not respond to me,” Shaffer said. “It’s very unusual.”
In two previous class-action lawsuits, Shaffer said, the FBI had been responsive.
The women are receiving support from the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which fights workplace sexual harassment and discrimination.