The Air Force wants to move quickly on its investigations into racial inequality in its ranks, and could release its first report later this summer, the service’s inspector general said Wednesday.
In an exclusive interview with Air Force Times, Air Force IG Lt. Gen. Sami Said pledged that his review will be independent and widely distributed — in its entirety — to airmen, lawmakers, the media and the public. While Air Force and Pentagon leadership will get a first look before its general release, Said said they will only receive the final version after it’s been locked down and it will not be altered afterwards.
Said stressed that it’s important this does not become one more report gathering dust on the shelf, and has real effects.
“Our Secretary [Barbara Barrett] and our chiefs [Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond] were crystal clear that we need to … do an independent review that paints an accurate picture and captures the good, bad and ugly,” Said said. “We’re going to be open and transparent with what we conclude, so that it’s hard to walk away from something when so many people know.”
All airmen will receive surveys in the next few days, Said said, and because of the current intense interest in issues of racial justice, he expects a good response rate. But when the IG starts looking through responses and notices patterns or trends in certain jobs, ranks or other categories, the office will conduct follow-up surveys in those populations to gather more information and their personal observations.
“Data without context could be very misleading,” Said said.
To be able to move quickly at first, the IG deliberately chose to begin with two narrowly defined issues regarding Black airmen — the first phase will review how they are disproportionately affected by the military justice and disciplinary process, and the second phase will study how they are affected by racial disparities in how officer, enlisted and civilian leaders are chosen and developed.
Starting with a broader, comprehensive review examining inequalities in multiple races and genders could take well into 2021, he said, which would only delay the changes that are needed now.
The IG does plan on reviewing gender and other disparities in the future, he said.
The report on the disciplinary phase could be released July 31, Said said, and a separate career opportunity report could come out Sept. 30. However, he said the IG’s team could decide along the way that it’s more efficient to combine the two investigations into a comprehensive report released at the end of August.
But Said said he won’t rush the report and produce something “half-baked” if he needs more time.
Beginning next week, the IG plans to start sending teams to Air Force installations — at least 20 locations, Said said, though it could increase — to speak with small groups of 12 to 15 airmen in person for 90 minutes and learn what their personal experiences have been with issues of racial disparities.
“We’ll learn so much from that,” Said said. “The group sessions are critical, on top of the anonymous and targeted surveys.”
Said said the IG will look at various aspects of Air Force culture, rules and policies to see how they may negatively affect Black airmen. For example, he suggested the review could look at how Black airmen are mentored and what role models they have, and what effect that may have on disciplinary actions down the line.
If “we’re not doing that as well as we should for African American airmen, that could easily lead to the spike that we already know exists in disciplinary actions like letters of counseling, letters of admonishment, letters of reprimand … [and] the higher percentage when it comes to Article 15s and court-martials,” Said said. “We’re looking at it, soup to nuts, in a comprehensive way to figure out what’s going on in terms of discipline and the disparity in treatment of our African-American airmen in uniform.”
On the career development side, Said wants to look at disparities that may hurt Black airmen on promotions, assignments, opportunities to attend schools in-residence and command opportunities.
“We know disparities exist,” Said said. “We want to paint an accurate picture, though, of the scope, depth and breadth of types of disparities, where they exist.”
The Air Force announced the IG review after a scathing report from the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, which found a continued racial disparity in the Air Force’s justice system, which disproportionately punishes young black male enlisted airmen, as well as the eruption of protests nationwide following the death of George Floyd during an encounter with Minneapolis police. Protect Our Defenders’ report also followed previous studies it and the Government Accountability Office conducted on the justice system.
Said acknowledged that the Air Force should already have been addressing issues of racial inequality before those events occurred.
“We all should have been doing more sooner,” Said said. But, “there’s an opportunity here, given what’s playing out in our country, to actually leverage the moment, to make sure change is lasting and is impactful.”
He also noted that the IG is a powerful tool, but it’s not the first tool the Air Force usually goes to when a problem needs to be solved. Usually, the Air Force prefers to have the organization that is having the issue — whether it’s Air Force personnel, or the Judge Advocate General’s office — try to study and fix it on its own.
But if an organization can’t fix the problem itself, he said, the Air Force brings in the IG, which can throw a considerable amount of weight behind its recommendations.
“The conclusions of an IG investigation have teeth,” Said said. “They’ve got to be based on fact; they can’t be flippant. But when [the IG says] ‘This is what’s going on, and this is why, and this is what we should do about it,’ that’s going to have some serious traction and the recommendations will stick.”
The IG’s office is also compiling a wide range of previous reports from organizations such as the Government Accountability Office and the Rand Corporation, he said, to see what data has already been assembled — but also what suggestions have been previously made, and perhaps ignored by the Air Force.
The IG also plans to interview the people at these organizations who conducted previous studies, and not just read the final reports.
“We’re gonna grade ourselves,” Said said. I’m gonna tell the good, bad and ugly. If we go, you know what, we were asleep at the wheel, we did not internalize any of that, we did not implement any of that — we’re gonna say that. … Did we have our head in the sand?”
This story has been updated to correct a reference to Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.