How Mayor Duggan manipulates media about Detroit’s long-neglected fire crisis

First Unitarian
A suspicious fire destroyed this church on Woodward, across the street from the new Red Wings arena development. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Mayor Mike Duggan attacked an in-depth report about the devastating impact of fires in Detroit, shocking the researchers who spent seven months painstakingly collecting the data and surveying the damage.

It’s just the latest rhetoric from an administration that continues to deny serious problems that are plaguing the fire department and burning out neighborhood cores.

Duggan criticized the exhaustive report by Loveland Technologies, a Detroit-based research and mapping group, as “unbelievably inaccurate,” a statement that turns out to be, well, unbelievably inaccurate.

In fact, Loveland Technologies’ data is virtually identical to the information we have collected on the fires in the past year.

A suspicious fire devoured these two homes on the east side. Photo by Steve Neavling.
A suspicious fire devoured these two homes on the east side. Photo by Steve Neavling.

In February 2015, we revealed that the administration wildly underreported arsons to the FBI, and Mayor Duggan continues to use that information to claim – falsely – that suspicious and intentionally set blazes are dramatically declining.

As a result of our report, the Duggan administration said it would revise the numbers, but the FBI said Thursday that it never received new figures from the city.

The report by Loveland Technologies was the most in-depth survey of fires in Detroit in decades, showing the catastrophic impact of arsons as fire trucks continue to break down at alarming rates and hydrants fail to work.  

Since Motor City Muckraker embarked on a yearlong examination of the Fire Department this year, the administration has worked behind-the-scenes to discredit our work, often telling journalists that our information comes from a “firefighter with a vendetta.” Our reports, however, never rely on secondhand information and involve detailed research using public records and surveys of fire scenes.

hydrants woodwardSome of our work, however, has been impeded by the administration, which has denied us access to many public documents, leading us to sue the city for records of broken fire hydrants. The city now contends it lost most of the records, even though the information is kept in log books at fire stations. The case is ongoing and could lead to criminal charges if it’s proven that city officials knowingly withheld public information.

Duggan’s administration has repeatedly declined to comment for our stories and even began retaliating against firefighters for blowing the whistle on alarming safety issues.

Whistleblowers sued Duggan twice when he was a prosecutor amid allegations that he was running a political machine out of his public office.

When asked about the Loveland study on Thursday, Duggan told the media that the survey – somehow – both downplayed and exaggerated the fire numbers.

Mayor Duggan
Mayor Duggan

“They dramatically understated the work that the men and women of the fire department have done,” Duggan said, even as his administration continued to discipline firefighters who dare speak out about defective equipment and other hazards.

Duggan also banned all donations to firefighters.

Loveland CEO Jerry Paffendorf was shocked.

“It seems like everything is perceived as a potential gotcha thing or a political thing, when we’re trying to do the opposite, and the framing and source material show that,” Paffendorf said.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MiOSHA) is now investigating the city over concerns that whistleblowers are being punished, and safety issues, such as defective rigs, are being ignored.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.