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An internal affairs investigation is underway following the Detroit Fire Department’s bungled, suspicious handling of a bizarre car accident involving an embattled deputy fire chief less than two months after he was suspended for driving his department-issued SUV to a bar.
Internal affairs investigators began reviewing the case, first reported by Motor City Muckraker, on Wednesday, less than a week after Deputy Fire Chief Robert Shinske claimed he crashed the SUV into his house in Dearborn.
The crash investigation was badly botched by top fire officials who brazenly ignored protocols in what many firefighters believe is a coverup to protect Shinske, the third in command at the department and an ally of Mayor Duggan’s.
Shortly after 11 p.m. on Dec, 13, Shinske alerted two top fire officials that he crashed the SUV into his house, smashing out the rear window and brake light, and causing damage to the back bumper. But what happened next has raised serious questions about the fire administration’s actions and whether the accident even occurred at Shinske’s houwe.
When a firefighter or department official is involved in a crash, a list of strict protocols must be followed to ensure a fair, impartial investigation. But the acting senior chief and the Chief of Department Robert Distelrath, both of whom responded to the accident, failed to follow the protocols, making it more difficult to determine what actually happened.
No one alerted, as required, central dispatchers to the accident, which would have prompted a series of actions to ensure a full investigation. As a result, other top fire officials weren’t notified, and a department photographer was never called to take pictures of the accident scene.
Several sources familiar with the investigation said no damage was found at the home of Shinske, a former fire union official heavily favored by Duggan for staying silent while fire rigs and gear were in disrepair. They said Shinske wasn’t immediately tested for drugs and alcohol in a timely fashion, as mandated by city ordinance and state law.
Several required accident reports also were not filled out, prompting confusion from mechanics about what to do with a vehicle that may be a critical piece of evidence in the crash.
Dearborn police also were never notified of the accident.
Despite the bungled investigation, Fire Commissioner Eric Jones quickly defended Shinske before even reviewing evidence in the case. Shinske has retained his position and as of Wednesday was still working with a department-issued car, despite concerns that Shinske is driving the car drunk.
A review of other fire department accidents shows firefighters are typically placed on leave during a routine accident investigation. Many firefighters are furious about the handling of the probe and are questioning why Shinske is being given special treatment, especially since protocols were bypassed.
Since then, Jones has refused to discuss the handling of the accident or the internal affairs investigation. Sources close to the administration said Jones has grown paranoid about whistleblowers in the department and is lashing out at union leaders and members of his team.
Jones, a former deputy police chief who was appointed by Duggan in October 2015 to replace Edsel Jenkins as the top commissioner, was supposed to help end corruption and mismanagement in the department, but his actions lately raise questions if he’s the right man for the job.
TriData, a national public safety consulting firm, blamed the fire administration for “years of neglect and mismanagement (that) have resulted in a situation where the fire department struggles every day to complete its mission.”
The 2014 report concluded, “There is a culture of cover-up in the department.”
A source in the police department said the internal investigation was prompted by Mayor Duggan’s office, not Jones.
Internal affairs investigators are analyzing a black box underneath Shinske’s smashed SUV to learn more about what caused the crash.
As many as five top fire officials are being investigated to determine if they intentionally covered up the crash.
Check back for updates
As Motor City Muckraker reported earlier this month, Shinske was suspended in October after citizen journalist Alex Haggart posted photos of the deputy chief’s vehicle at a Dearborn bar, where surveillance video appears to show him staggering.
According to two fire department sources, including an arson investigator, Shinske urged arson chief Patrick McNulty to investigate Haggart for a number of unfounded allegations. Shinske and McNulty are friends and graduated from the same fire academy in the 1980s.
The resulting investigation was so weak that the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office declined to file unidentified charges against Haggart less than a week later.
Still, Jones called the Muckraker report “borderline illegal.”
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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.