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The FBI is trying to add diversity to its ranks by recruiting at HBCUs

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Many things about the FBI are secret. This one is not. It has a diversity problem, particularly when it comes to its special agents. The bureau says it's trying to change that and has recently launched a new initiative reaching out to historically Black colleges and universities. NPR Justice Correspondent Ryan Lucas reports.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon, a few dozen students from Howard University logged onto their computers for a virtual career fair.

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JEFF REIS: I'm going to get started because I have very special guest on hand today, and I want to make sure that we hear from all of them.

LUCAS: This particular session wasn't put on by a Fortune 500 company or a high-powered consulting firm. Instead, it was the FBI's Washington field office.

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REIS: Real quick about me - my name is Jeff Reis (ph). I'm a special agent.

LUCAS: The presentation was part of what the FBI calls the Beacon Project. The bureau launched the initiative this past summer with a meeting headlined by Director Christopher Wray and the presidents of more than two dozen historically Black universities and colleges, including Howard. Scott McMillion is the FBI's chief diversity officer. Here's how he describes its goal.

SCOTT MCMILLION: It was really to reach out to those communities and ensure that they recognize that there is a place for their students in the FBI.

LUCAS: McMillion was named chief diversity officer this spring as part of what Wray says is an effort to diversify the FBI's ranks. And looking at the numbers, there is no doubt a problem, particularly in the FBI's trademark job of special agent. According to FBI data, 80% of special agents are white. Less than 5% are Black.

MCMILLION: It has always been a challenge for the FBI to have diversity in the ranks, particularly in the special agent position.

LUCAS: Some of that McMillion attributes to the FBI's own checkered past with the Black community, including the bureau's surveillance of the civil rights movement.

MCMILLION: Historically, we have not been the best, particularly for the African American community, where you're talking about surveillance operations, where you're talking about civil rights failures that the FBI has had.

LUCAS: Over the past two decades or so, he says that the FBI's efforts to hire more African American agents have been inconsistent. The latest effort aims to change that.

MCMILLION: The project itself is designed to ensure that we - if I can put it in this way - keep our foot on the gas.

LUCAS: Several Black retired agents have teamed up to try to ensure the FBI does just that. One of them is Michael Mason. He served 23 years in the bureau before retiring as one of the three highest-ranking African Americans in FBI history. Mason says back in the early 1990s, there was outreach to HBCU's, but it was spotty. He says the FBI needs to be more methodical and purposeful in its recruitment of African Americans, and other people of color, to get the diverse workforce it says it wants.

MICHAEL MASON: It's not enough to say, well, we are - you know, we are non-discriminating. We hire people from all walks of life. That may be true. And in fact, that is true. But how do you go about bringing those people inside the organization?

LUCAS: The bureau, he says, has to be intentional in how it recruits, hires and promotes. And he likens the effort to growing a garden.

MASON: You know, you have to nurture it. You have to water it. You have to fertilize it. You have to take care of it if you're going to get what you want. You can't just throw seeds on dirt and think you're going to get this beautiful garden.

LUCAS: Dr. Rhonda Glover Reese retired from the FBI in 2018 after 34 years of service. She says the bureau has to be intentional in its recruitment efforts now, particularly in light of the ongoing reckoning over race and policing in this country.

RHONDA GLOVER REESE: That impacts the FBI's ability to recruit.

LUCAS: She says, for the bureau's latest diversity efforts to stick, it's critical that the leadership consistently show its support. To that end, Glover Reese says she wants Director Wray to issue a statement to the workforce and the public, making clear that the FBI wants people from diverse backgrounds.

GLOVER REESE: We want diversity of thought. We want people that have diverse backgrounds. That's what we want. And I'm telling you that this is how I feel as the director of the FBI. I want to hear that.

LUCAS: But she says she wants more than that. She also wants the FBI director to take action. That's what it will take to get more young people of color who may have mixed views about law enforcement to consider a career in the FBI. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "ARTIFACT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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