Last Updated: Wednesday, 1:45 p.m.
Sixteen years ago, when Michael Anthony Walker was a police officer in Lake Helen, he found himself on an I-4 overpass, for an hour talking to a 43-year-old man who’d made a noose of an electrical cord and was threatening to jump. Walker’s effort paid off. He talked the man down. Walker went on to become the Lake Helen police chief for 11 years until last April. Today, he was named Bunnell police chief.
Bunnell City Manager Alvin Jackson made the announcement this afternoon, introducing Walker, 57, in an oddly choreographed and unprecedented “news conference” on the sidewalk of the Chicken Pantry strip mall where the city has its temporary offices. Jackson did so barely three weeks after posting the job in mid-December, and despite holidays diminishing the working days in the interim. He actually told Walker he was making him on offer last Friday. He will be paid $75,712, nearly the same wage he was making in Lake Helen.
Walker had been one of just five applicants, none from Flagler County. Walker was the only one interviewed, Jackson said. “He was the best qualified out of the five,” the city manager said. “None of the [other] individuals were chiefs, one or two had been in significant organizations.” Although chiefs are typically interviewed by panels that, as in the case of Walker’s predecessors in Bunnell, included law enforcement officials outside of Bunnell, Jackson alone interviewed, and spoke with Mike Chitwood, the Volusia County Sheriff, who spoke well of Walker. (The other four applicants were Steven McCarver, Richard Fortin, John Mammino and Troy Williams.)
Lake Helen’s population is a bit smaller than Bunnell’s: 2,700 people, compared with 3,500 for Bunnell, and a projected 4,000 by 2024.
Tom Foster, the police chief since 2014, chose to resign in early December (he termed it a retirement), immediately following a scathing performance review by Jackson that included a 30-day ultimatum to meet a long list of improvements. He’d been the chief since 2014 and had not previously had bad performance reviews. Soon after his resignation, long-time Sergeant Matt Mortimer, whose allegedly flawed conduct on the job was central to Jackson’s criticism of Foster, also resigned–and immediately applied to be a Flagler County Sheriff’s deputy. Weeks before, Dominic Guida, the department’s only other sergeant, died during training.
The changes left an already demoralized Bunnell police department leaderless and Jackson facing the most serious crisis of his tenure as manager. The upheaval prompted him to tap an old acquaintance to be the interim chief: Brannon Snead. Snead was not at today’s announcement, nor did he apply for the job. Jackson said Snead remains the interim chief until the Bunnell City Commission ratifies Walker’s appointment at a meeting on Jan. 24. Snead is a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper whose long tenure there ended abruptly after an internal investigation. He had previously applied to be a city manager in Bunnell.
“He wasn’t interested. He did not apply. And he didn’t make an offer,” Jackson said. “If he would have applied, definitely he would have been one that I would have considered.”
Walker was forced to retire from Lake Helen last April, but only because he was in the Deferred Retirement Option Program known as Drop, which requires participants to turn in their papers after five years, getting a big retirement payoff, and stay out of the system for at least six months. Walker did so. He then went to work as a seasonal driver for UPS, for $22 an hour, and was still employed when he applied for the Bunnell job, according to his job application. He also owns a landscaping business, Mays Mowing, incorporated in 2017 and again in 2019, according to Division of Corporations records.
On his job application, Walker responded “yes” to having been charged with a felony previously, and liosted a no-contest plea to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident in Jacksonville in 1985.
He’d started as an officer in Lake Helen in 1989, a year after being an officer in Daytona Beach Shores. But he said today he loves the job too much not to return. He and his family will still live in Lake Helen. He will be issued a city vehicle, and the city will pay for his travel gas, as was the case with his predecessor, Tom Foster, who lived in Ormond Beach, and with Armando Martinez, who lived in Brevard County and commuted there daily, at the city’s expense.
Walker said he had little familiarity with Bunnell before he applied, other than driving through a long time ago. He described himself as coming from a family of law enforcement officers, including his father, who was police chief in Holly Hill. He appeared with his wife and two of his six children, introducing them to a small gathering of reporters and nearby workers or business owners, several of whom did what has become routine at any staged event that appears out of the ordinary: they recorded it on their phones.
“I’ve spoken with the officers here. My goal, and what I’d like to see Bunnell in the future, is one of the top rated cities in the in the United States,” Walker said at the sidewalk conference this afternoon. “They get a bad rap now we’re going to change that. We’re going to make this a very exciting adventure.” By bad rap, he later clarified that he was referring to Bunnell’s crime rate, which, per capita, is disproportionately higher than anywhere else in the county, driven largely by disproportionate arrests. Walker said he’d favor the Neighborhood Watch program and Citizens on Patrol, known in Flagler County as COPS, though the Sheriff’s Office’s citizens on patrol are strictly regulated and limited in their authority: they substitutes for officers and serve as adjuncts only in supportive, bureaucratic or non-policing roles.
“The population there is diverse, but I associate with everybody,” Walker said of Lake Helen, “and I want all my officers to get out. I’m very strong on community or community oriented policing. They need to get out and be a part of the community.”
Walker, however, had a rather brusque response to a question about where he stood on the Black Lives Matter movement. “I think all lives matter. I think all lives matter,” he said. Everybody’s equal. That’s all. Everybody’s equal. I treat everybody and as well as the officers will treat everybody the same.”
A reporter asked him whom he’d reached out to regarding community policing, given the terms’ varying interpretations. “When I talk about community policing–as I spoke with the officers earlier–everybody, you talked to everybody, you don’t skip anybody. You stop and talk to everybody. It’s very important that the community support you, and they’re not going to support you if you don’t support them, if you don’t get out and become a part of them.”
A request for the names of the other applicants was placed with the city manager but the names were not provided before this article initially published. Walker was not visible when Jackson began speaking from a podium with Bunnell’s logo attached to the front. Jackson launched on a lengthy introduction that had nothing to do with the announcement–a sort of booster’s State of the City address that started with detailed geographic coordinates about Bunnell (a television crew was present: Bunnell rarely makes it on television), then about a series of previously reported developments in the city. He noted, for example, that the city has acquired the land on Commerce Parkway where a new city hall and police station will be emerging soon, presumably providing a more stately setting for future press conferences and Jackson’s trademark line, which he of course delivered (“It is another great day in beautiful Bunnell”). At one point he spoke of the “jewel” in the city’s old coquina City Hall, and went on to talk about the continuing expansion of Grand Reserve, the city’s fast-growing residential community. Reporters had to wait nearly 10 minutes before he got to the news.
“I’m here to tell you that I have made a choice, extended an offer and he has accepted,” Jackson said of the new police chief, without yet naming him. “Let me tell you about the process.” He then wen t on to explain not how the chief was picked out, not whether he was interviewed by various panels, as was the case in previous police chief appointments, or who the panelists were (Jackson has not returned calls or a text regarding those questions), but that the formal appointment would have to wait until the city commission’;s ratification later this month.
“It was very important that we identify an individual that had experience that understood small towns,” Jackson said, “towns that were growing, cities that were growing, one that communicates with the community and basically, most importantly, has the officers at heart and really [is] committed to engaging with the community. And so this afternoon,” he said, almost 13 minutes in, “I would like to introduce our new police chief, Chief Michael Walker.”
Walker and members of his family then emerged from one of the storefronts that serves as the city manager’s administrative offices.