By Laura Haefeli

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – A Black Sacramento firefighter is returning to the job after he resigned earlier this year over claims the department had a culture of hazing, sexism and racism.

Desmond Lewis’ exit from the department in February shined a light on the department’s lack of diversity. Lewis told CBS13 that stepping away from his dream job wasn’t easy.

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“It’s definitely the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” he said.

Lewis said he faced racism and discrimination as a probationary city firefighter.

“’Can’t these people stop protesting and go back to shooting each other?’ This was said casually around the dinner table,” Lewis said.

He explained he was given no choice. With his mental health at stake, he was forced to resign from the department.

“I’d get this sensation in my hands where I couldn’t feel anything,” he said. “This pressure in my chest and then my vision would start to close on me.”

Nine months later, he’s ready to go back to being a Sacramento city firefighter.

“I am a little nervous to step back into the situation. I think I’ve ruffled some feathers,” Lewis said. “I think it was an opportunity to kind of be that mentor, that shield for people who look like me moving forward.”

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Since Lewis left, Sacramento committed $2.2 million to diversify the Sacramentoaapi Fire Department by funding outreach programs and appointing staff inside the department focused on recruitment and inclusion.

“They have partners in the [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community, the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. You pull from high schools all across the Sacramento area,” said Councilmember Angelique Ashby, who spearheaded a city audit that tracks diversity within city departments.

Despite inclusion programs in place, there’s significant ground to cover. So what does the Sacramento Fire Department look like now?

The 2020 Sacramento City Audit shows there are 657 fire department employees. Approximately 71% are white, and only 3% are Black — the lowest percentage of Black employees out of all city departments.

“It does take time,” Ashby said. “We want Desmond and other people like Desmond to be welcomed in the fire department and be a part of our future.”

“My why is going to be to make sure I left the department better than I found it,” Lewis said.

CBS13 did reach out to the Sacramento Fire Department for comment. They say since Desmond is technically not yet an employee, they cannot comment on the matter.

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The local NAACP is helping Desmond through the process of returning to the department. He expects to be back on the job before the end of the year.