The following story was printed in the Daily Post on July 2. Pick up the Post to read important local stories first, before they appear anywhere else.
BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer
A Redwood City firefighter has filed a lawsuit saying that he has been harassed, demoted and sent explicit photos because he is African American.
The treatment that Joseph Echema has received by fellow firefighters during his eight years in Redwood City has caused him to break out in hives, have panic attacks and in May 2019, he suffered a “cardiac event,” said the lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court on Tuesday (June 30).
Echema, 39, says in his lawsuit that the comments the firefighters said were “racist, derogatory, disrespectful and inconsistent with the intrinsic values of first responders when dealing with minority communities.”
Some instances laid out in the lawsuit are times when racist remarks were made toward him. One such incident happened in March 2018 when he walked into the break room and saw a number of firefighters and two supervisors gathered around a phone, laughing at a picture. A firefighter showed Echema the photo, which was of a black man with, as the lawsuit describes “an oversized penis.”
Firefighters made comments about the man’s genitalia and then began directing comments to Echema about his genitals.
“There have been multiple instances where black male genitals were a source of commentary within the RCFD work environment,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff deemed the imagery and comments as pejorative and confirmation that this was a workplace filled with people that subscribed to racially derogatory stereotypes and beliefs about Black people that made them unfit for the uniforms they wore and their positions as so-called public servants.”
Use of n-word alleged
On Aug. 14, 2016, Echema was asked by a fire captain why he could not use the n-word to green Echema or any other black or African American people he knew.
“(Echema) was appalled and stunned that a supervisor would audaciously inject and discuss a racial epithet in the workplace. He told (the captain) that it was inappropriate and wished not to debate the validity of the n-word,” the lawsuit says.
Another example happened on Nov. 17, 2017 during his test to operate the rear of the fire engine, according to the lawsuit. Most firefighters are tested in a “relaxed” setting with one captain watching the test. When Echema did his test, five fire department higher-ups were at his exam.
Less than a year later, on Sept. 5, 2018, Echema was suddenly demoted after being rushed into performing an action typically done by multiple firefighters during a training exercise. Echema says in the lawsuit that he received no written notice ahead of the meeting, apparently bypassing policy regarding discipline.
The lawsuit also discusses two separate instances at two different firehouses where firefighters watching the news would comment on their dislike for the Black Lives Matter movement and support for keeping statues of Confederates standing.
Echema also says that one captain made comments about Redwood City residents, saying that young Latino and African American men are “‘thugs’, and insinuated that they were ‘up to no good.’”
Echema’s lawsuit lays out over 20 instances of times when he was not treated equally to other firefighters, heard racist comments or was singled out because of his race.
He says he was told he wasn’t wanted
Beginning in 2018, Echema tried to get transferred from Fire Station 9, which is downtown at 755 Marshall St., but was denied by captains Terry Condon and Ernesto Gomez, the suit claims. Around the same time, Echema said he was told at least twice by then-Battalion Chief Greg DaCunha that he was not a “cultural fit at the Redwood City Fire Department,” the lawsuit states. DaCunha allegedly went on to tell Echema that he would be better off at the Oakland or San Jose fire departments.
From September to December 2018, DaCunha would hold impromptu meetings with Echema related to perceived mistakes, despite the mistakes never showing up in a performance report until his December 11, 2018 performance review. The impromptu meetings caused Echema great anxiety and resulted in mild forms of panic attacks while on duty, the lawsuit states. In fact, he began to break out into hives when his work environment became untenable, the lawsuit says, and in May 2019, he experienced a “cardiac event,” causing him to be out of work for two days.
Echema filed complaints about his treatment. In December 2019, the city found most of his allegations against the department were “not sustained,” except for the ones related to his colleagues sharing offensive statements, jokes or images about race.
When asked for a comment about the lawsuit yesterday, City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz sent this statement: “We cannot comment on a case in litigation. The city has been and will continue to be, committed to fostering an organizational culture that promotes public trust and accountability. We are also committed to learning from one another as we work to strengthen the city’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion within all city departments and in the provision of city services.”
Racist culture alleged
But Echema’s attorney, Na’il Benjamin, said that there is a “deeply seeded” racist culture at the department that most people wouldn’t think of when they think of firefighters.
“This is not just the police department, where people are being murdered,” Benjamin said. “This is the beloved fire department where we all revere firefighters a little differently from the police.”
Benjamin pointed out that oftentimes the higher-ups in the department, who Echema is supposed to turn to when there was a problem, were also involved in the racist behavior