Come Monday, Bunnell will be without a police chief again: Michael Walker, the new chief who was supposed to be sworn in that day, has opted out of the job, and Brannon Snead, the interim chief brought in last month, says he’ll be heading back to Tallahassee. That will leave the Bunnell Police Department again with a leadership vacuum, less than two months after its chief of seven years left after withering criticism from City Manager Alvin Jackson.
There’s no public explanation behind Walker’s decision. Snead is linking his decision not to stay to the effects on his reputation from revelations of what led to his resignation from the Florida Highway Patrol in 2016.
The developments sharply reverse–and undermine–the optimism Jackson projected just two weeks ago when he described “exciting times for the city of Bunnell.”
Bunnell had never held a news conference before, certainly not to announce the appointment of a police chief. Jackson decided to do both on Jan. 4, holding court from a dais just outside his temporary offices in the strip mall behind the Chicken Pantry, boasting about achievements on his watch and announcing the Walker’s appointment as “the new chief of police for the city of Bunnell.”
Walker, who had retired as Lake Helen’s police chief in April 2021, walked out theatrically from one of the storefronts, along with his wife of 23 years and two of his children and introduced himself. He said he’d signed the contract that day, but his appointment would be formalized at next Monday’s City Commission meeting. He was to replace Foster, who resigned abruptly in December after seven years as chief, and after an ultimatum from Jackson, who’d handed him a list of corrective measures to execute, and a 30-day deadline.
Jackson said Walker told him a week ago (on Jan. 12) that he would not take the job after all, though it was only on Wednesday that Jackson asked Snead to extend his stay as interim.
“He just said due to personal reasons,” Jackson said today. “I have to accept that.” Jackson added: “He indicated he and his wife had prayed about it and had some discussions, I understood. I have to accept that, you know.” Walker did not respond to a text or a call to his cell phone.
For all the fanfare of the Jan. 4 news conference, which–another rarity–even drew the attention of television reporters, the city opted not to mention Walker’s reversal officially. There was no announcement, no release.
Walker’s decision prolongs the turmoil Bunnell has been navigating since Foster’s departure (his letter said he was retiring), which was accompanied by the departure of Sg. Matt Mortimer, just weeks after the death of Sgt. Dominic Guida, during training, which created a leadership vacuum in the city police’s top ranks. (Mortimer is a candidate for a job as a deputy at the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office.)
Walker’s appointment had been a surprise. Just five people had applied during a job-posting window barely two weeks long, starting in mid-December. Walker was the only one interviewed. When Jackson introduced him, Jackson’s interim police chief, Brannon Snead, was–surprisingly–not present, nor had Snead applied for the job. Jackson had tapped Snead, too, hurriedly, after Foster resigned.
“I still have Mr. Snead here as interim, and I do have some additional applications,” Jackson said. “I would like for Chief Snead to consider the position permanently, but right now, whatever time frame he can stay, I am trying to work through.”
But Snead is not planning to stay. “My last day is Monday, so that’s unfortunately, that’s something for the city manager to have to deal with. I was just notified of that,” Snead said this afternoon. He didn’t know why Walker, with whom he’d had limited contact had decided against being chief. “I don’t know him, I haven’t had conversations with him, I wasn’t part of the hiring process for him.” He said he’s had one conversation with him, discussing the department’s direction.
A Bunnell official familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity–not Snead–said of prospective chiefs: “They’re coming in and looking and saying thank you, but no thank you.” Another person familiar with the process said Walker, who met with all the commissioners, may not have had the commission’s necessary votes to ratify his appointment.
Snead himself was more forthcoming, saying the department faces challenges that can be met, but not without the city’s commitment in dollars, training, equipment and other ways. “Maybe he came in, maybe he was overwhelmed, maybe it was too much, maybe he didn’t want to go through that at this time of his life,” Snead said. “But I don’t know.”
Snead in his brief tenure–he says he’s been working 65-hour weeks–has hired five new deputies, saying he’s made the department more diverse than ever (one Black, two women, one white and one Pacific Islander). Two officers are leaving or have left for the sheriff’s office, in addition to Mortimer.
So why isn’t Snead staying on? “I made it very clear I wasn’t coming to be permanent chief,” he said, before referring, unprompted, to what led to his resignation from the Florida Highway Patrol in 2016, barely a few years from when he could retire with a full pension. “What happened to me was not fair and was not what was going on,” he said.
Snead was referring to a 2016 Office of Inspector General investigation of his conduct on the job. The investigation by the OIG–an outside agency–was triggered by an FHP supervisory intelligence officer Snead, as head of FHP’s investigative division, supervised. She reported 15 instances over several months when Snead would allegedly make sexually suggestive comments, speak of employees’ appearances or their relationship status, and use language in bad taste, including language discriminatory of gays, if only sophomorically so: the reported language is more similar to junior high vulgarity–if not idiocy–than malice or vileness (or anywhere near the crudeness of a former president’s sexual assault-leaden language). Some of the comments were corroborated by rank-and-file employees. Snead denied most of the allegations.
He also faced accusations of using his work-issued computer or cell phone for personal business beyond the permissible occasional, and of working a second job (he coordinated officers’ payrolls who worked private security shifts, as many officers do). The web surfing, while copious (754 websites in four days), was chaste: “He researched silver prices, police jobs, manufactured homes, RV parks, retirement communities, stock market projections, how to make a raspberry lemon drop martini, 2017 E350 Mercedes, Dave Brannon for Sheriff – Volusia County, and who built the white house,” the investigative report states. The non-work-related photographs he downloaded to his phone were equally virginal, and fixated on RVs.
The allegation that he created a hostile work environment was not sustained. The allegations that he made unprofessional comments, used his computer and cell phone for outside uses and worked a secondary job without proper notification were sustained. (Listen to Snead’s interview with OIG here, and read the transcript here. Transcripts of interviews with accusers are here and here.)
In a long interview today Snead disputed the conclusion about unprofessional comments. “Why would I go through a career and get to that rank and never have any issues and make any comments and get to that rank and make a statement like that?” he said (though it wasn’t just a statement). Snead had in fact had a stellar career, rising to Major, with more promotions in sight. His personnel file equates to about 400 pages of unblemished bureaucracy or certificates of appreciations, strong performance evaluations and commendations–including a commendation letter from the same agency, OIG, that investigated him–plus letters of appreciation from citizens he helped on the road. (See a sample of a few letters here.
FHP’s command staff had not yet decided what level of discipline to levy on Snead when he opted to resign instead. He says looking back, he may have erred rather than stay on and battle the allegations. FHP’s Lt. Mike Thomas (ret.), second in command at FHP at the time, said today in an interview that the investigation may have handed Snead a “raw deal.”
“When Brannon took over the investigative division, it was running pretty loose,” Thomas said. Snead imposed rigorous work demands. Some employees pushed back, in Thomas’s (and Snead’s). at the end of the day the course of action we took on him was probably too hard.But we are definitely harder on our command personnel. There’s things a trooper could do similar to that, they’d get a counseling letter, that’s it. But we do hold our leaders to a higher standard.” He said the allegations are serious at first read, even “unacceptable. But then at the end of the day knowing the back story, six months to a year later, in dealing with the same two individuals who are no longer with the agency, you realize there might have been some collaboration, they might have been in cahoots, there may have been more to that report.” Thomas said both individuals left or were fired. One sued, claiming dismissal as retaliation, and lost. (Thomas himself resigned–he says he retired–under a cloud in 2017, after revelations that he’d encouraged troopers to write at least two tickets per hour. See the transcript of his OIG interview in the Snead case here.)
The Bunnell city administration in its background check had asked for Snead’s disciplinary record and was told in a Dec. 10 email from FHP’s Darlette Pigott, that “Brannon Snead does not have any disciplinary action in the personnel file.” The statement is correct, as is Snead’s: “I was never disciplined for anything.” But human resource departments requesting disciplinary records generally know to ask for disciplinary investigations as well, which Bunnell did not. It seems clear the administration knew of the circumstances surrounding Snead’s resignation, but also that it was prepared to stick to a script: he had not been disciplined.
Snead pre-empted discipline by resigning. “We could have gave him a suspension, a counseling letter, it all depends at the time what we would have looked at and the determination we would have made as a command staff,” Thomas said. The disciplinary scale obviously went up to potential termination, though that would have been very unlikely in the circumstances.
“I don’t think he made a good decision,” Thomas said of Snead. “I think he should have not resigned, I think he should have waited it out. Once he resigned under investigation, we’re kind of handcuffed. We close the investigation.”
And Snead himself was amply forthcoming about his past, knowing that the OIG’s report had been obtained by FlaglerLive.
In Bunnell, Snead has been getting plaudits from commissioners and Jackson, and he’s been preparing documents fundamentally challenging the way the police department has been run–he is proposing outsourcing major crimes to the Sheriff’s Office, for example, while retaining and building the rest of the police department.
“The one thing that I can say is that just a few weeks that he’s been here, his experience and his track record prove to be extremely beneficial,” Jackson said. “I feel that he’s really helped myself and the city really get a good handle of the police department, looking where we are today and where we need to go tomorrow, he did that in a very short period of time, and the morale of the department is high. He has identified new officers, it’s a diverse group of officers that he’s brought in, and basically that’s what I was looking for.”
But the one blemish from FHP is hanging over Snead’s head. Near the beginning of today’s interview, Snead denied any connection between the OIG report and his decision not to extend his stay, or apply for the full-time job in Bunnell. Near the end of the interview, however–and especially since he had himself brought up the matter of the investigative report–he conceded that “I have to link the two, now.”
Snead imagined himself taking part in policing or community functions, knowing that anyone could throw the OIG report in his face, regardless of its veracity or context. He said it would make him ineffective at his job. “I’m done in Bunnell,” he said.