Sacramento Firefighter Alleges Race Discrimination

A Sacramento firefighter is claiming that supervisors and colleagues discriminated against him on account of his race. Waris Gildersleeve filed suit against the city and two captains in US District Court for the Eastern District of California alleging race discrimination under federal and state law.

Gildersleeve, 42, worked in fire prevention prior to being hired as a firefighter in 2020. According to the complaint, his problems began while he was rotating through on-the-job assignments following the fire academy. Quoting from the complaint:

  • The Department Fire Suppression Division is predominantly white, with approximately 600 firefighters total, and with approximately 12 Black firefighters, including Gildersleeve.
  • The Department has a racist culture in which some firefighters feel free to be openly racist because they face little if any repercussions or consequences by their supervisors.
  • Supervising firefighters either ignore racist comments and race-based bullying tactics or do very little to stop it and to discourage firefighters from engaging in racist behavior.
  • This violates the City’s zero tolerance policy that prohibits racial discrimination and harassment.
  • As an example of unpunished racism, at Fire Station 15 located in the Natomas area of Sacramento, Gildersleeve overheard a firefighter yell out “Fuck Black Lives Matter” during a television news program that the firefighters were watching.
  • Another example: at Station 2, Gildersleeve heard and saw a white firefighter walk around uttering a form of the N-word.
  • Gildersleeve heard about an incident where a Black firefighter was asked by a white firefighter whether he saw himself more as a firefighter or as a Black man.
  • Gildersleeve never heard a white firefighter being asked this question.
  • Gildersleeve heard from a Black firefighter that a white firefighter warned him not to congregate with “his own.”
  • Gildersleeve never heard white firefighters being warned like this.
  • Gildersleeve heard from a Black firefighter about an incident where a white firefighter referred to Black children as “niglets.”
  • On or about September 9, 2020, Gildersleeve was assigned to Fire Station 6 in South Sacramento.
  • Gildersleeve noticed that the white firefighters treated the other Black firefighter dismissively and often excluded him from group conversation.
  • The difference in treatment was because of race. Gildersleeve did not witness white firefighters receive abusive treatment.
  • Gildersleeve was soon subjected to the same abusive treatment that he saw the other Black firefighter receiving. Gildersleeve’s performance was criticized as substandard.
  • The criticism was unwarranted because Gildersleeve was performing the same tasks and skills at other stations in the past and had been graded satisfactorily.
  • In addition, the way Gildersleeve was criticized was unprofessional and abusive. He had white firefighters cursing at him as they criticized his work performance.
  • The criticism, cursing and abusiveness would not have occurred if Gildersleeve was white.
  • Gildersleeve also noticed on some responses to calls from the public, the firefighters were more concerned and more accommodating to white callers rather than Black callers.
  • Towards Black callers, the firefighters were impatient, dismissive, and disrespectful.
  • Gildersleeve was also set up to fail. For example, he was given tasks, some of them menial, that if he deviated from performing in some minor, inconsequential way, he was cursed and verbally abused.
  • Gildersleeve was set up to fail because the SOG material he was given was outdated, and he was being quizzed on current SOG material for which he had not received any written study guides.
  • It was not until Gildersleeve transferred to Station 2 on December 2, 2020 that he realized he had been provided outdated study materials.
  • Station 6 personnel knowingly and intentionally gave Gildersleeve outdated study materials for the purpose of causing him to fail quizzes.
  • Station 6 personnel wanted Gildersleeve to fail because of his race.
  • In another example, Gildersleeve was quizzed regarding a “papoose.”
  • Gildersleeve was not familiar with the term because it was an informal, unofficial term used by some firefighters in Station 6 to refer to a pediatric carrier.
  • Gildersleeve knew what a pediatric carrier was, but he was ridiculed and verbally abused for not knowing the “papoose.”
  • He was called a “fucking asshole” and a firefighter told him, “you suck as a firefighter.”

The complaint contains additional factual allegations, including that one of the defendant-captains issued him leaky dry-suits to use during water rescue training in an effort to “sabotage” him. Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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