Detroit Mayor Dave Bing made it pretty clear today that, while a lot was happening with Detroit fire and EMS services that left him unhappy, the most recent story was the final straw. It was another one by WJBK-TV reporter Charlie LeDuff. LeDuff and his advocacy, in your face style of journalism, clearly has had influence in Detroit. This story was about a wallet apparently taken during a CO alarm run at a citizen’s home that ended up in the quarters of Engine 40 and how the incident was handled by the department.
Reporter LeDuff used internal documents and information from sources to indicate there was a cover-up about the stolen wallet that extended all of the way to the office of Commissioner James Mack. Mayor Bing apparently found some credence to the TV news report. A day after the story aired the mayor requested and received the resignations of Mack and Deputy Fire Commissioner Seth Doyle.
Many of us were reminded of an important truth in life from the Watergate conspiracy of the 1970s. It is worth repeating for those who have forgotten or are too young and don’t know their history: The cover-up is worse than the crime.
Reading the reports written at various levels in this specific case you could come away with the impression there were members of Engine 40 sincere about making this family whole. They collected $150 to cover the cash and driver’s permit taken from the wallet. But you could also be left with a more sinister view of the reports.
Just two days ago I learned from an old friend who is a veteran fire officer in the Washington area that when he handled situations like this or wrote reports he always applied the “Dave Statter test”. He would ask himself, “How would this look if Statter got a hold of it and put it on Channel 9 News?”.
While I was flattered learning this after all these years, I know many other smart leaders have done similar things, but without using my name. I work for someone who applies the “Washington Post” test. In Detroit, if anyone was on the ball about this they would have used the “Charlie LeDuff test”. How would these reports look if LeDuff got them?
They found out that answer the hard way.
Reading through the reports the first thing that sticks out to me is that it is likely a crime was committed. Where did the fire department engage the police in this process? Also, a less charitable review of the reports could leave the perception for some that the cash given to the family was hush money.
On top of giving, at the very least, the impression of a cover-up, and then failing to apply the “Charlie LeDuff test”, Mayor Bing pointed out another major mistake by Commissioner Mack: He failed to keep his boss informed.
If you are a fire commissioner, chief or leader of any organization, you have stakeholders. Those stakeholders, especially your boss, should not first learn of bad news from a reporter or watch it on TV. If Commissioner Mack did not know prior to yesterday this should be SOP, he and the rest of Detroit know it now.
Let’s face it, things like a firefighter stealing a wallet happen in the fire service and everywhere else in life. If that was all this story was, Detroit most likely would not be looking for a new fire commissioner. But by compounding the original crime with people at every level of the Detroit Fire Department apparently failing to take appropriate action and then not telling the big boss, it becomes a very different type of story.
Here’s the advice from the person the “Dave Statter test” was named for. When the hint of a crime occurs in your department, take the appropriate action. If there has already been a cover-up, don’t compound it. And again, take appropriate action. Also, make sure you tell your boss about it. Then go put it out to the news media yourself with as much information as possible to get this story behind you. Don’t wait for Charlie LeDuff to knock on your door or call your boss.
This way the citizens will be better served and you will have a getter chance of getting a paycheck every two weeks.