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Black firefighter sues fire department over alleged racist party and harassment

Jerrod Jones, who joined the fire department in Rochester, New York, in 2008, alleges he and other Black firefighters experienced racism while they worked there.
Jerrod Jones.
Jerrod Jones, the firefighter who said his captain took him to a party last year that mocked Juneteenth, is suing the city of Rochester, N.Y., and its fire department.WHEC

A Black firefighter in upstate New York alleges in a lawsuit filed in May that he and his family have been harassed since he publicly recounted a party he described as racist that he was urged to attend last year.

Jerrod Jones, who joined the Rochester Fire Department in 2008, said in his complaint that his then-supervisor, Jeffrey Krywy, told him to attend a party in July 2022 that Jones described as racially insensitive.

Jones alleges the harassment began after he and his attorney held a news conference last August detailing a party he was urged to attend. The party featured a sizable cutout of Donald Trump and photos of local Democratic politicians’ heads placed on stakes, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also claims that the party had several elements Jones deemed racist, including buckets of fried chicken and party favor bags packed with Juneteenth-themed cups and bottles of Hennessy Cognac. 

Jerrod Jones.
Jerrod Jones joined the Rochester Fire Department in 2008. Rochester Fire Dept.

“When somebody makes fun of my heritage … when somebody doesn’t see how something like that can be hurtful, it became more than I could bear,” Jones said in an interview.

According to the lawsuit, Jones stayed at the party for approximately 40 minutes and was told by Krywy, who is a defendant in the lawsuit, that he couldn’t take pictures. After leaving the party with his fire crew, he said he felt completely shocked. 

“I went to the bunk room about three hours earlier than I normally do because I was just that angry inside,” Jones said, “and I was still kind of processing what was happening. I just went and I just laid in the bed and just prayed that I didn’t have to go anywhere that night, because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind — and I was driving [the firetruck], so that’s a huge, huge responsibility.” 

After the party, Jones took a medical leave of absence “to treat his emotional distress,” according to the suit, and has not since returned. Krywy retired last year “before termination proceedings” could begin following an investigation with the city, Rochester Mayor Malik Evans said in a statement in August 2022 that NBC News reported at the time.

Krywy did not respond to requests for comment.

Mary Znidarsic-Nicosia and Nicholas Nicosia hosted the party last year. The Nicosias’ lawyer addressed Jones’ allegations of racism in a news conference last year, who labeled  the event as a “political party” and said that Jones’ allegations were a politically charged “attack.” During the news conference, Znidarsic-Nicosia also admitted to using a fake persona on Twitter to make “blatantly racist comments” toward Black people but added that she was “not a racist person.” 

Arnie Rothschild, a spokesperson for the Nicosias, and Daniel Strollo, their new attorney, both told NBC News in recent days that the couple would not comment on Jones’ lawsuit. The Nicosias are not named as defendants in the lawsuit. 

Lawsuit alleges the department has a culture of racial hostility 

Jones filed a $5 million lawsuit in May against the city of Rochester and its Fire Department over a “racially hostile, discriminatory work environment,” the lawsuit says. The party, Jones said, represents a broader issue of cultural insensitivity and discrimination that some Black firefighters said have plagued the department for decades. 

Nathan McMurray, Jones’ attorney, said he spoke with several retired Black firefighters who said they also experienced racism while working for the Rochester Fire Department. Tommy Givens, who worked for the department for over 30 years, told NBC News that when he joined in 1990, he was “one of only a few people of color on the job at the time.”

Retired firefighter Tommy Givens lives in Webster, N.Y.
Retired firefighter Tommy Givens says he has mentored other Black firefighters.Tommy Givens

Givens said a white retired firefighter who would frequently visit the firehouse called him a racial slur about 20 years ago. Givens said that some white firefighters also displayed “this willingness to engage in discussions around Black criminality.” 

“There were people that I didn’t … feel comfortable being in front of a dark, hot, cramped, dangerous space with,” Givens, 59, said. “There were people that I worked with that I didn’t trust.”

Givens also said he’s counseled many young Black firefighters, including Jones, because he “identified with the struggle that they will go through within this culture.” 

Givens added that he also mentored another firefighter “who had been harassed for three years continuously” and felt that he “didn’t get the support from the administration and the union.” Jones’ lawsuit also cited a young Black firefighter who experienced “ongoing harassment and racist mistreatment” by a lieutenant.  

A group of Black firefighters, including Givens and Martin “Marty” Coker — Rochester’s first Black firefighter, hired in the 1960s — met with Evans, when he was mayor-elect in 2021, to discuss increasing the Fire Department’s Black workforce. Givens said the meeting was “very productive,” but that further attempts to engage the mayor regarding racial discrimination within the department have been ignored. The city declined to comment to NBC News about Givens’ attempts at contact.

Regarding Jones’ lawsuit, a spokesperson for the city of Rochester and its Fire Department told NBC News in an email statement that “the City does not comment on pending litigation” and declined to comment further on the matter. 

In the suit, Jones said he observed other firefighters showing disregard for property in Black neighborhoods, and even “intentional demolition of property” in those neighborhoods.

Beyond Jones’ experiences, McMurray, Jones’ attorney, said the suit is about making the department more welcoming for Black firefighters who will come after Jones. 

“Full justice means that this will be taken as an example for the future generations who get on the force,” McMurray said. “You know, young Black officers who feel safe — that they’re not going to be tormented, treated poorly or put in positions where their basic dignity is ignored.”

Jones said he’s faced a backlash since speaking out

Jones told NBC News that he and his former partner, who have a child together, have been harassed and stalked near their homes and in public since the news conference last year. 

“I’m not talking about once or twice,” Jones said about the frequency of the harassment. “I’m talking about dozens of times. There’s been cars following me, you know, around town — cars following her around town.”

Jones said he does not know who is harassing him.

Since going public about the party, Jones alleges he has experienced loss of wages, depression and ongoing harassment, including multiple instances of individuals attempting to enter his home, according to the lawsuit. Jones said one attempted break-in happened in March after he moved to a suburb of Rochester last year.

In another incident that occurred in December 2022, Jones told NBC News he saw a car sitting in front of his former partner’s house taking pictures and videotaping her home and his vehicle while he was picking up his son. She also regularly gets followed, he added. Jones said he believes these actions are tied to him speaking out about the party. 

Although he said he hopes to return to work, Jones, who received several accolades for his work in the department, said he does not feel comfortable returning to the department because he has “been notified by two coworkers, on separate occasions, that it would not be safe” for him to return to work, the lawsuit says. Jones, who had goals of being promoted to higher ranks in the department, also experienced a loss of reputation and financial hardship, according to the lawsuit.  

“My career is ruined,” Jones said. “I’ll never feel comfortable working in this department again.”