By comparison, the FBI employs 10,500 agents, and 525 -- 5 percent -- are African-American. Approximately 830 are from other racial groups. Among 2,452 U.S. marshals, 210 -- or 8.5 percent -- are African-American, and 120 are from other groups.
But black agents and government investigators familiar with statistics on federal law enforcement say representation figures fail to show the whole picture or accurately measure the width and depth of the chasm between black and white cultures within the agency.
Black agents in the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have all sued their employers alleging unfair treatment in promotions, hiring and other areas. But the Secret Service has never been challenged in court by its nonwhite employees. Racial discrimination cases involving the agency have never managed to reach the public arena.
The most serious challenge came in 1989, when 35 members of the agency's chief minority organization, Black Agents of the Secret Service, filed an administrative complaint alleging discrimination in promotion practices, evaluations and salaries. The complaint, which would have laid the foundation for a class action suit against the Secret Service, was thrown out by the agency on procedural grounds, leaving the agents with no way to pursue their charges, according to David Kairys, the lawyer who handled the case.
Four of the six African-American officers involved in the Denny's incident refused to discuss whether they have experienced racial discrimination within the Secret Service. The other two could not be reached for comment.
"I don't want it to become a problem," one of those officers said. But John Relman, their lawyer, said he is "fairly certain they all believe there's no problem with race relations in the Secret Service."
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has concluded that discrimination complaints at the Secret Service and other federal law enforcement agencies are discouraged by their Equal Employment Opportunity offices. (Secret Service spokeswoman Gayle Moore said only two of the 11 complaints filed against the agency through its Equal Employment Opportunity office in the past year have been from blacks alleging racial discrimination.)
"They harass the hell out of people, retaliate against them . . . and try to make them give up the complaint," a committee aide said.
As a result, the committee is recommending that the responsibility for investigating allegations of racial discrimination be taken away from the individual agencies and placed with the independent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Senate will consider the bill this fall.
Arthur Petaway, who handles equal employment opportunity filings for the Secret Service's personnel office, acknowledged that the agency works hard to avoid formal complaints of racial discrimination by addressing concerns as soon as they arise.
"We bend over backwards to resolve informal complaints before they reach the formal complaint stage," he said.
The long silence about racial division within the agency may be at an end, regardless of whether Congress decides to overhaul the complaint process.
A House Post Office subcommittee plans to hold a hearing this fall on minority promotion practices in federal law enforcement, and black Secret Service agents are expected to testify publicly about racial discrimination.
"This year is the first time Secret Service agents have come forward," the Senate aide said. "Part of it is the public perception that they're real supermen kind of guys, and they think they should hold it in and not embarrass the agency. But I think now, they're fed up."