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Air Force documents acknowledged 'persistent' racial bias in justice system

Air Force documents acknowledged 'persistent' racial bias in justice system
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The Air Force has acknowledged “persistent and consistent” bias against black airmen in its judicial system in internal documents, according to a report published Wednesday by an outside advocacy group.

The documents were obtained by Protect Our Defenders as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and published in a report that follows up on the group’s 2017 report on racial disparities in the military justice system.

“Do we have racial disparities in our justice system or not? If the answer is yes, then what are we doing to identify their origins and to counter them?” reads one slide from a November 2017 presentation to Air Force headquarters. “Yes – the data reflects a persistent and consistent racial disparity.”

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Another slide from an August 2017 presentation says black airmen at an E-2 rank are disciplined at double the rate of other demographics, adding that “if this were the case for airmen that were female, versus male, we were would have concerns about what is making the difference, and investigate – we clearly must address this disparity in the same way.”

Wednesday’s report is meant to build on Protect Our Defenders’s 2017 report, which found black members of the military are more likely to face military justice or other disciplinary actions than their white counterparts.

In response to that report, Congress asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the issue. The GAO’s 2019 report found black, Hispanic and male service members were more likely to be investigated and face a court martial than white or female service members and that the military had not comprehensively evaluated the disparities in the justice system.

In a statement Wednesday, the Air Force said it took several steps in 2017 to increase awareness of unconscious bias. In 2019, after further study, the service also directed unconscious bias training for supervisors and created mentorship programs for young airmen, the Air Force added.

“Part of what makes our airmen and space professionals great is who they are – their diversity,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in the statement. “While we have taken steps to elevate unconscious bias training at all levels of our command structure, we have more work to do to identify and remove barriers that stand in the way of our people’s success.”

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Protect Our Defenders, though, argued the new documents show the Air Force concealing known racial disparities in its military justice system.

“Despite the Air Force’s internal findings in 2016 that it has a ‘consistent’ and ‘persistent’ racial disparity in prosecutions of black service members, it appears the Air Force has done nothing in the last four years to solve the problem,” retired Col. Don Christensen, president of the group and the Air Force’s former chief prosecutor, said in a statement Wednesday. “Instead, the Air Force dedicated time and effort to cover up its failure to act on any solutions. All service members must have faith that they are treated equally when facing punishment. The Air Force has utterly failed to do that.”

In statements released by Protect Our Defenders, lawmakers pledged action in response to the new report.

"It’s extremely troubling to see that the Air Force is wasting valuable resources that could have been used to address staggering racial disparities in military justice on keeping the public and the press in the dark,” Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierDemocratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Pentagon puts on show of force as questions circle on COVID-19 outbreak Candymakers meet virtually with lawmakers for annual fly-in, discuss Halloween safety MORE (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel subpanel, said. “We cannot stand idly by as our servicemembers are subjected to injustice and discrimination that should be a footnote in our history, not a modern day scandal.”