By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Desmond Lewis, a member of the city of Sacramento Fire Department, resigned on Jan. 31.

The Sacramento City Council voted this week in favor of investigating complaints and racial disparities within various city departments, including the Sacramento Fire Department.  

The council’s approval also opens the door for the City Auditor to examine resolution practices concerning city employees as well as attracting and hiring more diverse professionals.  

“We must ensure that the processes established to handle complaints of bias and discrimination are effective in addressing employees concerns if we are to build trust and attract diverse talent,” Councilmember Eric Guerra said. “The audits being pursued by the City Auditor will bring transparency within all of our departments and ensure credibility of processes in place to address workplace toxic cultures.”

Guerra initiated an audit of the complaint handling process and racial disparity assessments of the many other departments as a result of “toxic culture,” complaints in the SFD, he said. 

Desmond Lewis’ job as a firefighter for SFD caught Guerra’s attention. Lewis ended up quitting SFD after he cited, from his perspective, that the department was operating under a racist and hostile work environment. 

Based on the “2017 Audit of the City’s Gender and Ethnic Diversity” report, 72% of SFD’s employees are White while 4% are Black. Latinx make up 13% of SFD personnel and Asians consist of 6% percent of the department. The city’s Citywide and Community Support department has the second-highest percentage of White employees (75%). 

The Sacramento Police Department (SPD), behind Citywide and Community Support and SFD departments, has the third-highest number of White workers (68%). Black employees accounted for 6% of SPD’s workforce, the 2017 city audit says. 

Guerra and Lewis said the audit conducted in 2016 only focused on figures and statistics. It didn’t go far enough as presenting problem-solving and remedial measures. 

“They audited themselves in 2016 for similar issues in terms of looking into diversity and it only got worse,” Lewis said during a ZOOM interview. “The sentiment is awesome. But if it’s not followed up with follow-through, it’s just a wish.”

Late last year, the African American Employees Leadership Council (AAELC), a local organization composed of city employees, expressed its concerns about the employee workforce diversity and salary trends after the release of a City of Sacramento 2020 Auditor’s report.

The 2020 report provided an assessment of the diversity of city of Sacramento employees and compared the results to the demographics of the city of Sacramento residents.  

The report further provides insights into the City’s employee demographics related to age, ethnicity/race, and gender, as well as opportunities for the City of Sacramento to address the salary gap between women employees and their White man counterparts. 

“Race and gender representation are still not reflective of the city’s demographics with women representing half of the City’s population, but only representing 34% of the City’s workforce and African Americans currently only representing 10% of the city’s workforce, members of AAELC said in a written statement in December 2020. “Despite the City’s stated goals of diversity and inclusion, disparate treatment of employees has also made it difficult to retain people of color.”

The city’s Human Resources Department and Diversity and Equity Manager’s office have made progress in ensuring an equitable workplace, Guerra said. But more work, time and energy is needed to level the playing field in city departments, the councilman of District 6 insisted. 

“We want to make sure that there are clear recommendations, to make sure that we start diversifying our departments, like the fire department, by looking at recruiting in under-resourced communities,” Guerra said. “That is a major step forward in our process.”