A Black Sacramento firefighter said his colleagues set him up to fail. Now he’s suing the city

Daniel Kim/Sacramento Bee file

A Black Sacramento firefighter is suing the city, alleging that racial discrimination in the Sacramento Fire Department harmed his career, humiliated him and caused him emotional distress.

Firefighter Waris Gildersleeve alleges in the lawsuit that his mostly white colleagues attempted to sabotage his career with damaged or old training resources, which on one occasion caused him a physical injury.

The lawsuit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for Eastern California, says that Gildersleeve overheard a colleague deprecate Black Lives Matter and learned of other firefighters criticizing the racial justice protests that unfolded in the spring and summer of 2020.

And, the lawsuit states that Gildersleeve’s supervisors set him up to fail a test when they provided him an outdated version of the department’s standard of guidelines to study.

Gildersleeve’s lawsuit follows a high-profile resignation last year by Desmond Lewis, another Black firefighter. He left the department to expose what he called a ‘hostile work environment’. He later rejoined the Fire Department, in part to help change the organization from within.

Only about 3% of the Fire Department’s roughly 650 employees are Black, according to a city audit. That’s about 20 firefighters.

Gildersleeve’s lawsuit states the department’s few Black firefighters sometimes talk with each other and share stories about racist conduct. The lawsuit echoes some of Lewis’ observations, including that a white firefighter discouraged a Black firefighter from socializing with “his own,” meaning other Black firefighters.

Sacramento Fire Department spokesman Capt. Keith Wade said Gildersleeve’s allegations are a part of an ongoing investigation and the department would not comment on the case. The lawsuit also names Capts. David Lauchner and Brian Brust as defendants.

The department — on many occasions — has said it does not tolerate workplace discrimination or harassment.

According to the lawsuit, Gildersleeve felt the department has not lived up to those commitments.

He declined to elaborate on the lawsuit in a phone interview.

“Everything in the court document is accurate and how I feel,” said Gildersleeve.

17 years in Sacramento Fire Department

Gildersleeve, 42, joined the Sacramento Fire Department in 2005, and held positions as a fire prevention officer in the fire marshal’s office before switching to the Fire Suppression Division in 2019.

According to Gildersleeve’s court documents, he attended the fire academy from November 2019 to April 2020. Nearing completion, he began working as a probationary firefighter in March 2020, where he would go through a year of supervised training and on-the-job experience.

The lawsuit also alleges:

Gildersleeve worked in different stations during his training, and observed racist remarks at some of them, the lawsuit said.

While assigned to Station 15 located in South Natomas, he overheard a firefighter yell out “F--- Black Lives Matter”.

In a separate occurrence, Gildersleeve saw a white firefighter using the N-word at Station 2 in downtown Sacramento.

The department did not discipline the firefighters over their remarks, the lawsuit says.

Gildersleeve’s concerns escalated when he was assigned to Station 6 on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in south Sacramento, where he believed two of his supervisors allowed a racist workplace culture.

On multiple occasions, Gildersleeve alleges that he witnessed firefighters treating civilians differently when responding to calls from the public. Firefighters were more concerned and accommodating to white callers, while showing impatience and disrespect, being dismissive to Black residents, the lawsuit says.

Outdated test materials

Gildersleeve believes he was set up to fail his training because he was provided outdated study material during his probationary period.

When it came time to test on standard operating guidelines, the out-of-date study guides caused Gildersleeve to answer test questions incorrectly, according to the lawsuit.

He was ridiculed in the presence of Brust for not knowing an informal term for a pediatric carrier, due to the lack of updated material.

Gildersleeve was verbally abused being called a “f------ ---hole” and was told that he sucked as a firefighter by other firefighters. The captains at the station did not discipline firefighters who insulted him, the lawsuit says.

On one occasion, a supervisor yelled at Gildersleeve calling him lazy because he did not move a box, but instead walked around it.

After receiving satisfactory performance reviews at other stations, the lawsuit alleges Gildersleeve faced criticism and disciplinary write-ups at Station 6.

In November 2020, Brust would not sign off on Gildersleeve’s transfer to another station, citing performance shortfalls. Gildersleeve felt the delay was a pretext for racial abuse and discrimination.

In December 2020, Lauchner and Brust allegedly made calls to captains at Station 2, disparaging Gildersleeve’s abilities.

Leaks in water rescue suits

A January 2021 training event also raised Gildersleeve’s suspicions that his colleagues intended to harm his career, the lawsuit says.

Gildersleeve picked up a dry suit from Lauchner for a water rescue training session in Coloma. When Gildersleeve went to the training and submerged in water, his suit leaked significantly, causing him to sink in the water.

Gildersleeve opted for a second suit from Lauchner, and the replacement also contained a major leak.

The backup suit became an issue during one of the drills ultimately causing an injury to Gildersleeve’s right shoulder, which forced him to undergo surgery.

According to the lawsuit, Gildersleeve believes none of this would have happened if he were a white firefighter.