When Bunnell City Manager Alvin Jackson announced the appointment of Interim Police Chief Brannon Snead on Tuesday, he said Police Chief Tom Foster had merely retired. Foster himself in a Dec. 2 letter to the manager and the commission said the death of Sgt. Dominic Guida convinced him to “start a new chapter in my life,” so he provided his four weeks’ notice.
The reality is vastly different. Foster was all but forced to resign.
The same day Foster wrote his letter, Jackson had disciplined Foster with a devastating written reprimand over severe deficiencies that point to a breakdown in relations between the city manager and Foster and between Foster and the city commission, and to charges of disrespect and misconduct that implicate Foster and the police department’s Sgt. Matt Mortimer. Mortimer is portrayed as a rogue officer who retaliates against officers who complain while failing to comply with department policies, including safety policies. The reprimand describes a department turned fiefdom of fear under both Foster and Mortimer. Just as gravely, it describes city commissioners repeatedly complaining of Foster spreading rumors, disinformation and false claims about the mayor and commissioners and their supposed intentions to eliminate the police department.
Foster, according to the disciplinary document, violated city policies and general orders, including rules of conduct, supervisory rules, disrespect, violations of prohibitions on public criticism of public officials, and dissimulation or manipulation of Mortimer’s evaluations.
The disciplinary document amounts to nine pages of sharp criticism and bullet-pointed outlines of corrective demands for every violation. Foster signed the document. Within hours, he was gone. He did not respond to a message on his cell phone today before the initial publication of this article.
Some commissioners were made aware by Jackson of the problems. Some were not, or said they were not.
Jackson in an interview earlier this week deflected repeated attempts to explain the suddenness of Foster’s departure. He was asked point-blank whether there’d been issues. Jackson , who was speaking at the same table as Snead’s, artfully dodged the questions.
“There is an element of surprise in Tom’s decision to leave that quickly. He was just here. Was there any dissatisfaction?” a reporter asked Jackson.
“No, not dissatisfaction. Like I said, I’m constantly working on areas that we need to improve upon,” Jackson said. “There’s some areas that we were working on as it relates to public safety.”
“Any issues internally that were grinding at the organization, that you are relieved that he’s gone?” he was asked.
“Let me say this, once you’re gone, my concentration right now is going forward,” Jackson said.
“Just for the sake of the organization, in terms of whether there are issues that could come back to bite you?” he was asked again.
“Well, no. It’s not going to be issues that come back to bite me because I’m moving forward,” Jackson said.
Contacted today Jackson said he had not deceived in his answers, but had accurately said that Foster had retired–and said he did not “appreciate being chided” over his previous answers.
Nevertheless, the city manager sought to keep a problem from being more broadly known, and understood by the public even though by his own account in the disciplinary document, it was not only an internal matter but had spilled into the community, affected the city commission, and seriously affected the running and morale of the police department–down to what had become a “practice” among sergents and corporals to leave their posts early or, in Mortimer’s case, the turning off of his GPS. The following bullet points from the document, in Jackson’s words, provide one glimpse at the extent of the problem:
• Chief has failed to meet the above-referenced policies and expectations [the Code of Conduct, interaction with citizens and employees, courtesy and respect, public criticism], by spreading rumors and bad mouthing the Mayor and Commission to residents about the lack of support for the Police Department. Those rumors also include the Commission is planning to get rid of him and the Police Department.
• Chief has failed to meet the above-referenced policies and expectations by telling Officers the City Manager can’t be trusted. As a result, the Officers don’t feel comfortable approaching the City Manager nor expressing their concerns for fear of retaliation from Sgt. Mortimer and the Chief.
• Chief has failed to meet the above-referenced policies and expectations by providing misleading statements to other agencies about Officers who are considering employment in other agencies.
• Chief has failed to meet the above-referenced policies and expectations by sharing misleading information. As an example, that the City Manager was not allowing overtime.
• Chief regularly displays a negative attitude and obstinate disposition. He also has been heard engaging in negative talk.
The deficiencies Jackson listed regarding Mortimer were equally serious, as he related them to Foster’s accountability:
• Failing to correct or address negative attitude/actions of Sgt. Mortimer. This includes but is not limited to the following actions and behaviors of Sgt. Mortimer:
o How he (Mortimer) talks down to Officers.
o How he (Mortimer) retaliates toward Officers if they complain or bring constructive items to the Chief’s attention.
o His (Mortimer’s) negative and poor leadership examples.
o His (Mortimer) failure to turn on his GPS, a real safety issue for the Officers.
o Taking off the days he wants and not being considerate of others in the department need or want for time off.
• Deflecting a low morale of Officers onto the Commission.
• Not addressing the real issues and concerns of the department.
• Failing to provide effective leadership and communication to and from Sgt. Mortimer.
• Not addressing the issues and concerns of Officers and creating a retaliatory
• Only having one officer on per shift after the Chief had communicated to the City
Manager and Commissioners that we have at least two officers on per shift with a Cpl. and/or Sgt. overlapping shifts. This creates a safety concern for officers.
• Lack of consistent communication throughout the Department.
• Lack of Equitable treatment for all Officers, i.e. vacation, GPS (AVL) usage.
• Bad mouthing Officers to others.
• Bullying Officers verbally, both directly and indirectly.
The disciplinary document doesn’t mention a key trigger in the breakdown of authority: several police officers within the department had documented problems with Mortimer and time issues and forwarded the letter to Jackson, who had asked Foster to address the problem. Foster, it appears, kept protecting Mortimer.
Jackson noted that Foster failed to provide him with Mortimer’s evaluation before it was submitted to Mortimer, and that once Jackson reviewed it, he did not think it was accurate. “Chief has failed to hold Sgt. Mortimer accountable as one of his leaders,” Jackson wrote.
The disciplinary document goes on to list further “deficiencies” in Foster’s leadership, including “Bad mouthing the Mayor and Commissioners regarding policy and budgetary decisions,” and revealing that “The City Manager has been called numerous times by Commissioners about the misinformation and gossiping regarding how certain Commissioners are out to eliminate the Police Department or have the Chief fired.” The document then lists 16 bullet points giving Foster 30 days to comply with each, from complying with policies to improving the working environment to not spreading rumors.
In Foster’s absence previously Mortimer would take the reins of the police department. The disciplinary document implicitly explains why Foster’s departure did not trigger that sort of interim succession, and instead caused Jackson to contact Snead, whom he’d known previously, and offer him the interim post immediately, which Snead–who had not yet toured the city or become familiar with its neighborhoods, nor had met police officers–took.
Foster’s relationship with the city had been steady and solid, drawing exceptional or near-exceptional evaluations from three city managers, including Jackson. It’s not clear why or how matters broke down as swiftly and gravely as they did this year: Jackson is not willing to explain.
Then-City Manager Larry Williams hired Foster in February 2014. The two were never the closest of colleagues, but Foster still seemed to thrive. When Williams evaluated him three months later, he gave him outstanding ratings in every category but a few: he got poorer marks on “accepting responsibility” and “judgment,” and his public relations, while good, were not outstanding. “Chief Foster has to devote more time to building stronger relationships with the Community at large and as the Chief of a small department he must make himself available during an emergency situation 24/7,” Williams wrote. The evaluation improved the following year but was still well shy of perfect.
When City Manager Dan Davis evaluated him, he got perfect marks almost across the board, drawing a compliment from Foster that was also a slap at Williams: “This past three months has been refreshing working with our new city manager, Mr. Davis.” Foster got a raise. The perfect scores from Davis continued in 2017 and 2018. “Chief Foster is my top go-to department head to fill in for me as Acting City Manager,” Davis wrote in 2018, unwittingly anticipating precisely who the city commission would appoint as interim after firing Davis six weeks after he signed his last evaluation of Foster. Foster was the interim manager for six months.
Then came Jackson, who’s been making his managerial mark in various ways. One of those ways was changing the evaluation system. He replaced the evaluation form, added a prefatory list of objectives, and included expanded comments in each category. Jackson first evaluated Foster in May 2019.
Unspoken then as now, it was no small distinction on Jackson’s part that he was the first Black leader in Bunnell’s history to be evaluating a white police chief, in a town that until not too many years ago was a model neither of integration nor of warm relations as far as the Black community was concerned. “Injustice’s corner: Black men in Bunnell, arrested for being there,” read the headline over a News-Journal editorial in 2007. It was the result of then-Police Chief Armando Martinez arresting two Black men simply for walking in what Martinez called a “known drug area,” and arresting a third Black man simply for asking why the other two were being hassled. The State Attorney’s Office eventually threw out all the charges. And Martinez became city manager, ushering several unsettled years for the city, in its police department especially. The hiring of a Black police chief in Arthur Jones helped, though he was entirely under Martinez’s thumb. Foster’s era was calmer, as have been relations with the Black community.
Jackson at first was impressed with Foster, finding him to be an exceptional leader, dedicated, exemplary to his team, mentoring officers and increasing accountability. Foster maintained good relations with the city commission and a succession of sheriffs (he’d worked with Sheriff Rick Staly during his long career at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office). But Jackson had concerns, too. Foster, he found, “Must attempt to close communication loop during discussion to negate the perception of not being open to other’s [sic.] point of view. Be more of an active listener. Choose your battles. Chief needs to work toward diversity in PD,” and the “elimination of drug dealing, particularly in South Bunnell.” Jackson was asserting himself in no uncertain terms in stronger terms than Foster had seen in any of his previous evaluations, though Jackson concluded: “Chief is a major asset to the leadership team,” giving him an “exceptional” rating.
The following year’s evaluation got better by one point (50 instead of 49, out of a possible 54). The need for more diversity persisted, as did a recurring concern: “Chief needs to strengthen his reputation as a team player internally. He need to be [cognizant] of his interactions with his staff and others that can be perceived as a non-team play,” though that seemed to contradict Jackson’s observations of Foster’s leadership: “Chief demonstrates a highly effective communication style that motivates his staff. He serves as a mentor for his staff. Gives consistent encouragement to team, actively uses employee recognition.” Jackson reproduced the same language from the previous year’s concerns about Foster’s interactions, and this time outlined a work plan that called on Foster to improve customer service and safety, hire a detective (Foster did. The detective did not last), expand community policing, work toward eliminating drugs from South Bunnell (a miniature pipe dream that both echoed Nixon’s futile war on drugs and ignores drug consumption in the rest of the city), and develop a capital improvement plan.
Jackson’s February 2021 evaluation was more of the same.