Chief Meston discusses morale, criticism following Wygant’s arrest
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Former South Lake Tahoe Fire Department (SLTFD) Capt. Mark McLeod Wygant’s alleged behavior and subsequent arrest on federal child pornography charges was a shock to the fire department. The personnel felt betrayed and angry by Wygant’s alleged behavior, and many in the community felt the same way about the department itself.
Thursday, SLTFD Chief Jeff Meston spoke about the department’s reaction to Wygant’s arrest, the personnel’s current morale and the harsh criticism he and his staff have received. Wygant was arrested on Jan. 29 following a South Lake Tahoe Police Department and FBI investigation into a flash drive found in the fire department that allegedly held a large quantity of child pornography photos and videos.
“It was really hard for our firefighters to be walking down the street or be going to a grocery store or actually be out front working on a piece of apparatus and somebody would come by and yell something that was derogatory, kind of lumping us all in the same category, that was really, really tough,” he said.
“We’re out there, checking our equipment and people would come by and ask, ‘you have any more flash drives?’ We’ve had citizens who have called up and have left messages on the business machine scolding us. You know, ‘how could you hire someone like that? You should be ashamed of yourself.’”
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Meston said that he understood that the percentage of people who have been critical of the department is small, but that it is still disappointing. He was upset by the fact that some in the public did not understand that Wygant’s behavior does not reflect on the rest of the department. There have been people who have shown support for the department, but attacks have been the ones that have stood out the most.
Meston told his staff, “don’t engage with any controversy with the public. They’re entitled to their opinion, although we might not agree with their opinion, they’re certainly entitled to their opinion.”
Though he understood why the public was lashing out at the department, it was still harmful to morale.
“We’re used to responding to calls and having people be open to us and appreciative that we’re there, and a few people looked at us like, ‘I don’t know if I trust you anymore,’” Meston said.
Many in the public were also critical of other aspect of the case, primarily the fact that Wygant was hired in the first place, that he worked for the department for nearly nine years and that, for days after his arrest, he was put on paid administrative leave.
“We had no clue. It was shocking to all of us,” Meston said.
The department has a reasonable screening process, but Wygant was able to get through the system, he said. Sometimes people are really good at keeping secrets and living secret lives.
About the process that followed Wygant’s arrest, Meston was proud. He said the fact that within four days of his arrest, Wygant faced termination and presented his resignation, helped the department begin to heal.
The department and the city needed to work carefully during that process to ensure that they followed procedures and did not violate Wygant’s firefighter or civil rights in order to prevent any possible legal action against the city in the future.
“People would challenge that. ‘Why would you do this? If he confessed, why would you?’ But our role really is to ensure that the city is protected, and although he may say something, and you kind of saw that, he pled not guilty,” Meston said.
“People find that confusing that even when it appears to be pretty cut and dry, it’s never cut and dry.”
In many ways, the way that a portion of the public felt toward the department, the staff felt toward Wygant.
Before Wygant’s arrest, practically no one in the fire department, except for Chief Meston and few others, knew of the situation. The investigation into the found material was done secretly, to protect its integrity, first by the SLTPD and then by the FBI.
The day Wygant was arrested, the SLTFD was holding its awards ceremony. The news of the arrest came crashing rapidly in a rush of confusion and disbelief followed by intense international and local media attention.
Meston himself faced direct accusations when a Reno news outlet erroneously reported that the SLTFD Chief had been arrested.
The ordeal was a harsh hit on trust and morale.
“I think across the board our personnel thought, ‘hey, wait a minute, we all signed up to protect the public and, to a degree, you violated that trust, you violated the public’s trust, you embarrassed the organization,” Meston said.
The personal impacts and implications were also powerful.
“We really rely on each and everyone of us. With the exception of myself, everyone else who works here works 48-hour shifts. They train together, go to calls together, eat together, live together for that period of time, so there was a big shock for a lot of people who were here. We didn’t have a clue this was going on,” he said.
“Our female firefighters were concerned with, ‘was I videotaped?’ The automatic thing was, ‘was he looking at me funny?’”
“To me it was shocking,” Meston said. “But it was shocking to people who had been here the entire length of his employment. They were just floored by that.”
To the best of his knowledge, Meston said, there is no evidence that Wygant did anything similar to the accusations made by the FBI within the department or while on duty.
Nearly a month after Wygant’s arrest, morale is improving. The best way to move forward, Meston said, is to be professionals, keep communication open within the department to deal with the issues that stem from the incident and try to do a good job every time they go out on a call.
“We’re not perfect people. We’re trying to do a really good job, but we’re not perfect people,” he said.
“For us it was shocking, it was tragic, but we kind of deal with shocking and tragic things weekly.”
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