Editor Lenore Devore thinks reporters should look at the wheat to be found in public records, and not the chaff of press releases peddled by taxpayer-supported ministers of disinformation.
So when the Lakeland Police Department’s “public information officer” stonewalled a young police reporter looking to flesh out details of a shooting, Devore did what good editors do. She refused to let her newsroom take “no” for an answer.
That was in the fall of 2012, when the community and its newspaper had high hopes for Lakeland’s new police chief, Lisa Womack. But Womack quickly proved to be Lakeland’s worst enemy, and her own.
As The Ledger uncovered instances of the department falsely claiming that records did not exist or could not be found, Womack candidly, if stupidly, admitted she plays a “cat-and-mouse” game with the press regarding Florida’s 100-plus-year-old public records law.
The State Attorney asked the grand jury to take a look, and The Ledger took the unusual step of allowing Devore and five of her reporters to testify under oath and behind closed doors.
Journalists usually resist being “part of the story,” and for good reason. A newspaper’s credibility rests upon the public’s belief that the newsroom is working for readers, and not for the powers that be.
But The Ledger didn’t report anything to the grand jury that it had not already reported to its readers.
The grand jury issued a scathing report, expressing doubt as to Womack’s fitness to serve as police chief given her hostility toward her legal duty to be candid with the press and public. The report remained secret for 10 months, as the city fought to keep it secret.
Meanwhile, honest people who knew things and trusted their newspaper began to come out of the woodwork. The more The Ledger dug, the more “new sources provided information from right under the chief’s nose,” said Devore.
The Ledger’s front page was awash in stories of sex scandal cover-ups by higher-ups. A police captain, a city human resources chief, and 28 others were fired or forced to resign. There were reports of frat-boy “bra searches” designed to frighten and humiliate.
One officer was arrested on charges of sexual battery and stalking.
Another officer admitted to requiring DUI suspects to sign forms he had not yet filled out. The State Attorney was forced to drop dozens of that officer’s cases, and later concluded that “public safety is at risk in Lakeland.”
A year after The Ledger wrote its first story detailing problems with public records at the police department, the city lost its $220,000 fight to keep the grand jury report secret. A month later, the police chief resigned.
Lakeland’s credibility is in a mighty big hole, but the city fathers won’t stop digging. And neither will The Ledger, which recently reported that the city secretly hired a public relations firm and paid it $130,000 for fruitless and futile damage control.
You don’t have to live and pay taxes in Lakeland to appreciate this kind of dogged, persistent, meat-and-potatoes local reporting. Every community deserves an editor like Devore, but far too few communities have one.
Florence Beth Snyder is a Tallahassee-based lawyer and consultant. Column courtesy of Context Florida.