Recent protests inspire Redwood City firefighter to file discrimination suit against department

A Redwood City firefighter is suing the department he works for, alleging racial discrimination.

Joseph Echema said he's been harassed and singled out because of his race. He hopes his story will inspire change.

Echema said he loves being a firefighter saying, "It's team oriented. It's public service. You're helping people in their time of need."

But during his eight years with the Redwood City Fire Department, he said he's been subjected to numerous incidents including how he was scrutinized during a field test for a promotion.

"I had two battalion chiefs, a captain, a training chief watching me do my test. Whereas other folks, other employees who did the same test, only had a captain watching them," said Echema.

He said he immigrated from Nigeria as a child and became a U.S. citizen in 2009.

Echema played for the NFL for five years, including two years with the Raiders as a running back.

He said he thought being a firefighter would be a good fit since he liked the comraderie of teamwork. 

"I thought that was something I can acclimate to and enjoy, but I was ignorant and naive," said Echema. 

He showed KTVU obscene images he received of Black women and men that he described as disparaging.

He said firefighters would make racist comments.

"Black Lives Matter protestors deserve to be shot. A supervisor asking me why he can't use the "n" word," said Echema.

He said despite complaints to city leadership, nothing was done. He filed a lawsuit against the city citing incidents; including a comment from a captain:

"Are you going to get a gold grill to match your lapel and belt buckle when you promote to chief?"

"Going through this process has been stressful. Has a lot of anxiety," said the firefighter. 

In response to our request for an interview, Redwood City provided a statement from the city manager: 

"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.

"When we do speak up, we're immediately ostracized. We now become a pariah within the dept," said Echema.

Despite the risks, he said he was inspired by the protests that followed the death of George Floyd.

"If you want social change and you're not getting it. You have to stand up for it at some point in time," he said. 

Moving forward, Echema said he'd like to stay with the Redwood City Fire Department.

He hopes the lawsuit will bring about changes including leadership, hiring and promotion practices.