Federal Lawsuit Says Black Firefighter Was Subjected to Racist Mockery by Colleagues
The plaintiffs attorney said the hostile treatment allegations illustrate a pervasive and systemic concern.
May 30, 2023 at 05:20 PM
The lawyer for a Black firefighter who recently filed a discrimination lawsuit in a western New York federal court against the Rochester Fire Department said his client had long been subjected to racism since he joined the agency in 2007.
For instance, the plaintiff, Jerrod Jones, had once engaged in a heated argument with a supervisor who had ordered him to “unnecessarily” use an extrication tool in response to a Black woman whose car had been in a minor fender bender, but was safely operable.
But the fact pattern turned, Jones’ attorney Nathan McMurray said in an interview with the Law Journal, when a supervisor, Rochester Fire Department Captain Jeffrey Krywy, took Jones to a party that made national headlines because wealthy white people used racist tropes to openly make fun of Blacks.
McMurray, an attorney with Advocates For Justice Chartered Attorneys, said his client tried to settle the matter internally, because Jones didn’t necessarily want the publicity, and he had even acquiesced to the city’s request that he not participate in interviews with the national press.
“It’s been a difficult road already,” McMurray said, “and this claim is something we have to do because they’ve been very difficult to deal with.”
A spokesperson for the city did not return a message seeking comment about the case, and inquiring about who would represent the city in the lawsuit.
Filed on May 24 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, the complaint asks the court to enjoin Rochester, its Fire Department and Krywy from “maintaining a racially hostile workplace,” while seeking $4 million for emotional distress, at least $1 million in damages for loss of reputation, and attorneys’ fees and court costs.
At that July 2022 party, which was at the home of a prominent local dentist, Jones experienced discomfort when he saw a sizable cut-out of former President Donald Trump, “a figure known for race-baiting and divisiveness,” two large Juneteenth “celebration” flags, displays of buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a burlesque performer who mocked a Monroe County official’s support of Black Lives Matter protests.
According to the lawsuit, Jones said his captain stood with the party favor bag in his hand, and he seemed “to acknowledge the inappropriate and offensive nature of the event,” ordering Jones and others, firmly, “No pictures.”
“Unable to leave, Plaintiff stood at the back of the party, contemplating what to do,’’ the complaint alleges. Jones expressed to two other partygoers “that he felt like he was in the movie ‘Get Out,’ a psychological horror film addressing race, racism and the fetishization of Black people.”
An attorney for the party hosts said the party’s theme was political, and denied it was meant to be racist.
The lawsuit further alleges racially disparate treatment in firefighting responses. For example, the suit alleges responders were in the practice of putting just a ventilation hole in a roof in less than dangerous situations in Black neighborhoods, to prepare for more dangerous situations later in white neighborhoods.
McMurray said he believes the allegations in the lawsuit depict a systematic concern within the Rochester Fire Department, but elsewhere in firefighting and policing “across upstate New York, who’ve experienced, sadly, similar types of behavior.”
Arthur Schwartz, principal attorney at the 12-year-old New York City-based private-public interest law firm, said the addition of McMurray in December 2021 has allowed it to expand its practice to the Rochester-Buffalo area, along with New York City.
“For whatever you want to take it to mean,” Schwartz said, “to the extent that any unions endorsed Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, it was largely police and firefighter unions that supported him and that reflects something where those unions are at.”
Schwartz said his firm represents a number of officers of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who allege that they have had to deal with race and sex discrimination, along with “cronyism, in general, looking the other way around wrongful treatment of other officers.’’
“We have a case going to trial in July involving a woman who was a police officer at the Port Authority, who was handcuffed to a chair and taunted by a bunch of male police officers,” Schwartz said. “And then, since she complained about it, she can’t get herself promoted. They’ve continuously come up with reasons not to promote her. So there’s ongoing retaliation because she said something. So there's not a lack of that (kind of circumstance).”
McMurray is also handling a prominent discrimination lawsuit brought by three Buffalo Police officers who claim to have been treated poorly by their employer after they reported a supervisor’s alleged racist rant.