Former Jonesboro police Officer Michael Foster testifies during a hearing to appeal the termination of his employment Tuesday. The hearing focused on Foster’s debts and how he handled a company to which he owed money. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
JONESBORO — A former Jonesboro police officer told the city council this week he was fired because he owed a business money for a 73-inch television, but police department officials said there were deeper issues involved.
The council unanimously upheld Michael Foster’s firing after a hearing Wednesday. Foster was fired last month after three internal affairs investigations were conducted on him between last summer and last month. Internal Affairs investigator Lt. Eric Bradshaw testified that many of those investigations centered around debts Foster owed and how he handled them.
“Officers should not use their positions of authority in taking care of their personal matters as far as retaliation,” Bradshaw said.
The debt Foster owed to Aaron’s Rentals in Jonesboro proved to be the main focus of the hearing. Bradshaw said it violated a section of the department’s Standard Operating Procedures manual that deals with payment of debts. Bradshaw said Chief Franklin Allen ordered the investigation after an initial complaint from Aaron’s about past due payments owed by Foster.
The business claimed Foster was several months behind on payments, the lieutenant said.
“The chief ordered an internal affairs investigation to look into the fact of whether Officer Foster was negligent in the payment of his debt with Aaron’s Rental,” said Bradshaw.
Foster admitted he had gotten behind on some of his debts after dealing with three cancers and four heart attacks, but he told the council he was only one month behind on his TV payment. He also said he wasn’t the only officer that was struggling with financial obligations.
He accused five fellow unnamed officers of filing for bankruptcy. He said they were not disciplined by the department, which is something he said undermined the department’s standard operating procedures.
“It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on if it’s not enforced across the board,” said Foster. “I’m being punished for something far less than what other people who are still employed by this department have been allowed to get away with.”
He also accused the store of violating his privacy by complaining to his employer about his debts.
“It’s all a civil matter that had nothing to do with my job to protect the citizens of Jonesboro,” said Foster.
Although his debts kicked off the investigation, it’s Foster’s alleged actions after Aaron’s initial complaint that got him into deeper trouble, according to Bradshaw and Allen.
“Aaron’s had made a complaint that officer Foster had come up to the Aaron’s store and pretty much intimidated and threatened them,” Bradshaw said. “The threat was that he was alleged to have threatened that he would — that if he was to ever see one of their drivers out and about and they were doing something wrong, that he was going to deal with them.”
Bradshaw said he told Foster not to return to Aaron’s and that he would handle a payment the officer had to make on his TV. He said Foster allegedly left his office, went to Aaron’s and made the payment anyway. That prompted the store’s managers to make another complaint the next day because they thought he had come to the store to harass them again.
Bradshaw said he determined Foster had violated sections of the police department’s Standard Operating Procedures that dealt with professional image, payment of debt, professional conduct, ethical conduct and conduct unbecoming of an officer.
“Basically he was taking his personal feelings and interjecting them into his job by saying he was going to retaliate against them for making the complaint,” Bradshaw said.
Foster said he was not threatening the managers or other employees. He said he had given Aaron’s drivers breaks in the past and issued them warnings when he caught them speeding, and that he told the managers he was not going to continue giving them breaks.
That prompted Mayor Joy Day to point out that his statement to the managers could be taken as a threat.
“When you say to a business owner, ‘I have given your drivers a break, but now I’m going to do my job,’ do you not think that comes across as a threat?” Day asked Foster.
“It might not be a smart thing to say, but I don’t see it as a threat,” he replied.
Bradshaw and Allen testified that Foster was demoted from his rank as a sergeant and placed on a one-year probation because of the incident with Aaron’s.
Bradshaw said a subsequent internal affairs investigation stemmed from a December 2013 incident in which he allegedly got into a car accident while on his way to work. Foster said his cell phone was broken that day and he reached out to his supervisor through a colleague on Facebook to call in sick that day.
Foster testified that he started to feel better so he reached out to his supervisor again through Facebook and told her he was on his way into work. However, Bradshaw said department officials attempted to contact Foster to tell him not to come into work, but could not do so because he didn’t have a home phone.
Bradshaw said Foster was disciplined by receiving verbal counseling for “not having a home phone.”
The final investigation, Bradshaw said, stemmed from two issues that were looked into at the same time. One was a debt Foster owed to a business from which he was renting a storage shed and was allegedly behind payments. Bradshaw said he began investigating that debt after overhearing a conversation Foster had with other officers about the debt.
Bradshaw also said the department got another complaint from Aaron’s that alleged Foster had contacted their corporate office and claimed that their initial complaint had cost him his job and that he was planning to sue the company.
Foster argued the company misunderstood what he said. He claimed he said he’d lost his position as a supervisor in the department because of the demotion he received.
Either way, though, Bradshaw said that complaint was what finally cost Foster his job.
Foster pleaded with the council to give him a chance to stay on the force. He said he grew up in the city, loved Jonesboro and only wanted to work for its police department.
“I’m just asking you to have mercy on my case and look at whether my being late on bills is good enough for termination,” said Foster.
In the end, the council came out after an hour-long executive session and rejected the plea. Foster gathered his belongings and left the police department headquarters, perhaps for the last time.