Top brass at the San Francisco Fire Department sought to “cover up” an alleged firefighter-on-firefighter attack last year, according to allegations in a lawsuit one of the firefighters involved recently filed in federal court.
The case stems from a Feb. 1, 2022 alleged attack outside the Oakland home of firefighter Gabriel Shin. Robert Muhammad has entered a not guilty plea to charges of assault with great bodily injury in the attack that left Shin with a broken arm and a concussion.
The assault, according to the suit, was sparked by an unspecified workplace grievance. Afterward, the suit alleges, the fire department went after Shin, not Muhammad.
The suit alleges that Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson was involved in the campaign – saying she and her staff “went to astonishing lengths to protect the attacker and to punish an innocent firefighter who was almost killed.” The chief, the suit alleges, continues to allow Muhammad to work.
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Muhammad’s criminal attorney, James Bustamante, told us he had not read the civil lawsuit.
“I have heard generally what it alleges,” Bustamante said. “All I can say is my client is one of the nicest human beings you’ll ever meet and a solid firefighter.”
“Whatever happened off duty is an unfortunate event for all involved. Any civil suit arising from the incident is unjustified.”
According to Shin’s federal lawsuit, Muhammad had a “history of threatening, bullying, and aggressive behavior” for more than a decade.
The suit alleges “High-ranking SFFD officials knew of this history yet failed to take any corrective action” to deal with Muhammad’s “dangerous volatility” towards other firefighters.
Before coming to Shin’s home, Muhammad allegedly threatened Shin and others, according to the suit. It also alleges Shin alerted department management to those threats.
Muhammad was allowed to remain on duty, however. According to the suit, Muhammad looked up Shin’s address in the department’s personnel database and took a 15-inch-long brass spanner wrench to Shin’s home on Feb. 1 of last year.
According to the suit, Shin said he was sweeping the sidewalk with neighbors that day when Muhammad came up from behind and confronted him.
“I’m going to give you a chance to save yourself,” Muhammad told Shin, according to the suit.
When Shin put the broom down and refused to fight, the suit alleges the taller, younger Muhammad swung the spanner at his head.
Shin said he broke his arm fending off the attack that left him with a concussion and other injuries. The suit goes on to say Shin was spared further injury only because an armed bystander yelled out to intervene.
According to the suit, Fire Chief Nicholson failed to act against Muhammad, and instead ordered Shin to stay away from him. Later, according to the suit: “Chief Nicholson and her deputies went so far as to attempt to interfere with a criminal investigation to cover up the violent crime perpetrated against Firefighter Shin.”
The suit states department officials refused to provide Oakland police with a photo of Muhammad so they could prepare an arrest warrant.
“Without that information from the SFFD, the police department could not quickly identify Defendant Muhammad, including because of the number of people who share the same name,” the suit alleges.
The suit also alleges the department engaged in a “concerted effort to pressure” Shin to stop cooperating with investigators. The suit says one supervisor contacted Shin the day after, asking him if “we could work something out” in lieu of criminal charges.
After Shin refused, the suit alleges another supervisor issued a “direct order to end his cooperation” with the Oakland police probe. When he went to the chief, the suit states she “did not offer to take any corrective action to stop SFFD witness and victim intimidation.”
“When firefighter Shin resisted the hostile pressure and direct order from SFFD superior officers to cease cooperation with the criminal investigation against defendant Muhammad,” according to the suit. “Chief Nicholson punished Firefighter Shin by stripping him of his compensation and taking away his health insurance before the broken bones in his arm had even set.”
The Fire Department referred questions about the matter to the City Attorney’s office, which said it’s reviewing the allegations in the federal complaint and will respond in court.