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DEA recruits cite 'monkey noises' among claims of racism

At the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Training Academy in Virginia last year, an instructor on the firing range called out a name that was shared by two trainees, one Black and one white.

When both responded, the white instructor clarified, “I meant the monkey.”

That behavior, as alleged in an internal complaint, didn’t stop there. The instructor also was accused of going on the loudspeaker in the tower of the outdoor firing range to taunt black trainees by making “monkey noises.”

“We were like, ‘It’s 2019. That shouldn’t even be a thing that we’re dealing with,’” said Derek Moise, who did not hear the noises himself but recalled the discomfort they caused his fellow Black trainees who did. “Everybody knows what those sounds and noises stand for.”

As the DEA continues a decades-long struggle to diversify its ranks, it has received a string of recent complaints describing a culture of racial discrimination at its training academy in which minorities are singled out, derided with insults and consistently held to a higher standard than their white counterparts, according to interviews with former recruits and law enforcement officials and records obtained by The Associated Press.

In one case, a Black recruit was told his skin color made him a surefire candidate for undercover work. In another, a Hispanic woman, chatting in Spanish with a fellow trainee, was admonished to “speak English, you are in the United States.” At least two of the complaints prompted internal DEA investigations, one of which remains ongoing.

The complaints, which are not typically made public, offer a rare window into the frustration minorities have voiced about their treatment at DEA since the filing of a 1977 civil rights lawsuit that remains unresolved despite a series of court orders governing the agency’s hiring and promotion practices. Last year, a federal judge ruled that DEA had run afoul of court orders intended to remove subjectivity from agent promotions.

Like other federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the DEA has struggled to fill its ranks with minorities. Of the agency’s 4,400 special agents, just 8% are Black and 10% are Hispanic.

The DEA said it could not immediately provide a racial breakdown of recent graduates of the Quantico, Virginia, academy, which puts through multiple classes a year of about 50 to 60 trainees each.

“DEA takes allegations of misconduct very seriously and will not tolerate discriminatory behavior of any kind,” the agency said in a statement. “DEA is committed to recruiting, retaining and promoting a workforce that reflects the diversity of our country and the people we serve.”

In the case of the firing range instructor making “monkey noises,” at least two Black trainees raised their concerns to a DEA supervisor, who sent them up the chain of command, prompting Special Agent Jay Mortenson to be removed from his post on the firing range. But to the disappointment of the recruits, he was not disciplined before retiring.

The DEA told AP the instructor was “promptly reassigned” after agency leadership learned of the alleged “inappropriate behavior.” The agency said it has “no authority to pursue an administrative action” because its internal affairs arm, the Office of Professional Responsibility, was still investigating when Mortenson retired last year. His retirement ended that probe.

Contacted by AP by telephone, Mortenson called the allegations “incorrect” but said “I’m not going to talk to you about it” before hanging up.

The recruits who originally accused Mortenson are still employed by the DEA and not permitted to speak publicly about the incidents.

Former recruits who spoke to AP said racism permeated their time at the academy from their first day of basic training, alleging exceptions were routinely made for underperforming white trainees while Blacks were held to an appreciably higher standard.

“They weren’t going to let me graduate and become an agent no matter what,” said Theo Brown, a Black recruit from Marietta, Georgia, who contends he was unfairly dismissed in early 2018. “They put you in situations where they can fail you at something subjective, and it’s basically your word against theirs.”

Brown said he was pepper-sprayed three times in a single training exercise while other trainees were sprayed once. It got to the point, he said, that other trainees didn’t want to work near him because of the “special attention” he was receiving.

Academy instructors maintained Brown fell short short in several disciplines, citing his “lack of enthusiasm” and issues with his report writing, according to DEA records. They denied that discrimination played a role in his dismissal.

More recently, the DEA opened an internal investigation into claims brought by Saudhy Bliss, a Hispanic woman from Orlando, Florida, who says she was dismissed from the academy last year after being treated in a “hostile manner.” She alleges she was called a “f—-up” in front of her colleagues, “required to drag a 220-pound-plus male across a great distance" and even struck in the forehead by a simulation round that caused her to bleed profusely.

DEA instructors said Bliss was dismissed for failing handgun qualifications and raid trainings.

“There is compelling evidence that a number of the individuals assigned to train this particular class were openly discriminatory towards African-Americans, Hispanics and female trainees,” Bliss’ attorney, Louis F. Robbio, wrote in a letter last year to the DEA's acting administrator, referring as well to the incident involving the monkey noises on the firing range.

Moise, who earned a master’s degree in criminology and played wide receiver at Florida Atlantic University, said he wanted to work for the DEA from the time he was 6 years old when he witnessed a drug raid at a neighbor’s home in Miami.

“My mom felt that much more comfortable letting me play outside after that,” he recalled. “I saw those yellow DEA letters and thought they were the coolest people on Earth.”

Moise says he never tried drugs and stayed out of trouble because he always planned to apply for DEA. But from the moment he arrived at the academy, he said, it was clear he would be judged on a different scale.

Moise said he ultimately was dismissed after instructors determined he used excessive force by firing one too many rounds at an assailant during a simulation. At the same time, he said, the academy graduated white trainees who, instead of saving their partner in the same simulation, “threw their gun under the bed and just froze."

“There was never any praise for anything that we did as minorities, and we were always being made examples of,” said Moise, who has since taken a state government job. “You can’t tell me that there’s not more Black people who qualify.”

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Mustian reported from New York.