Detroit fire commissioner forced out just weeks before Devil’s Night following Muckraker reports

Photo by Steve Neavling.
Photo by Steve Neavling.

Less than three weeks before Devil’s Night, the notorious pre-Halloween tradition of setting houses and buildings ablaze in Detroit, Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins is on his way out.

Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins
Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins

The 30-year veteran of the department met briefly with Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration this afternoon and returned to fire headquarters to notify his staff that he is retiring under pressure, several sources within the Fire Department confirmed today.

“I started in this department as a firefighter at the age of 19 and am grateful that I had the privilege of serving as its Executive Commissioner,” Jenkins said in a statement. “I look forward to spending more time with my family.”

The news comes less than 10 months after Motor City Muckraker launched a one-year project to highlight the systemic problems within the department: Detroit firefighters are forced to work with malfunctioning, outdated equipment; their fire stations are riddled with asbestos and other health hazards; and they’re routinely threatened and harassed for being suspected of leaking news about serious safety violations.

Jenkins often downplayed the problems and criticized our coverage, saying the fleet of defective fire trucks was “up to snuff,” even as rigs continued to break down nearly every day, causing fires to burn longer and cause more damage.

Jenkins’ departure is expected to be part of a larger shakeup at the top of the beleaguered fire department after Mayor Duggan appoints an interim commissioner later this week. Duggan declined to discuss what’s next for the remaining top brass.

“I want to thank Commissioner Jenkins for his 29 years of service to the Detroit Fire Department and the citizens of Detroit,” Duggan said. “The program he started to train Detroit high school students as firefighters and EMTs will benefit the department for years to come. I wish him well in his retirement.”

Deputy Commissioner Craig Dougherty, who is in charge of the defective rigs and outdated equipment, lied to Mayor Duggan’s office last week when he was asked why firefighters’ air bottles were allowed to expire in violation of state and federal safety laws. As a result, 173 of the 420 tanks were taken out of service, leaving many firefighters without an air bottle. Dougherty also has threatened firefighters who were suspected of blowing the whistle on safety violations.

Chief of Fire Operations John King continues to threaten and harass firefighters who he believes are leaking information to Motor City Muckraker about numerous state and federal violations.

And Deputy Commissioner John Berlin has failed to properly train firefighters and is a constant source of low morale.

Firefighters applauded the removal of Jenkins but said full reform isn’t possible until Berlin, Dougherty and King are forced out.

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.