The city of Sherman released transcripts of eight exit interviews with former members of the Sherman Police Department Tuesday that seem to indicate former Police Chief Otis Henry created a hostile workplace environment for his staff.

(Editor's note: The article has been updated to correct the time frame during which the exit interviews were conducted, and with additional information throughout.)

The city of Sherman released transcripts of eight exit interviews with former members of the Sherman Police Department Tuesday that seem to indicate former Police Chief Otis Henry created a hostile workplace environment for his staff.

City staff confirmed the interviews were done by current Sherman Police Chief Zachary Flores while he was the city’s human resources manager during a multiweek period that stretched from September into October of last year. The city announced Henry’s intention to retire on Dec. 8. It went into effect on Jan. 1, and City Manager Robby Hefton named Flores as Henry’s replacement on Dec. 12, making him the acting chief the same day.

In a written statement issued Friday afternoon, Hefton said following Henry’s decision to retire from the department after the city manager asked him to take on a “different role” with the force, Henry initially seemed interested in taking a consultant role for the city, but then declined that option. As part of the written statement, city staff said Henry has “retained legal counsel in relation to this matter.”

“First and foremost, I want to reiterate that the City of Sherman owes a debt of gratitude to Otis Henry for three decades of service to our extraordinary police department,” Hefton said in his statement. “However, after assessing the needs of the Sherman Police Department and speaking with numerous former and current members of SPD, it became clear that a change was necessary due to deficiencies in his leadership.”

Henry’s attorney, Ed Richardson, said Friday that Flores’ investigation into Henry was done at the direction of Hefton.

“Mr. Flores was supposedly running a secret investigation doing, from what I understand, exit interviews of former Sherman police officers, without the knowledge of the human resources director, his boss at the time, Wayne Blackwell, who has himself now been demoted into a job that before this week did not exist,” Richardson said.

City staff confirmed last week that Blackwell, who formerly served as the city’s director of human resources, is now the city’s training and development manager, though he still has the same supervisor, Assistant City Manager Don Keene.

“He (Flores) was doing the investigation under the direction of the city manager and obviously became the beneficiary of that investigation, which raises all kind of ethical questions about conflict of interest,” Richardson said.

Flores interviews former Sherman officers

City staff said the interviews were done with eight former officers who resigned from the department during 2016. A ninth officer, who was terminated from the department last year, was not interviewed about his tenure with the department. City staff said the former officers had between two and 20 years of experience, with five of the eight having had tenures closer to 20 years than two years. All names other than Henry’s were redacted in the interview documents provided to the Herald Democrat and no other information was provided about who the officers were. City staff said the former officers were contacted by telephone and asked to respond to the survey about their time with the department.

Sherman City Attorney Brandon Shelby said via email that he had all names other than Henry’s redacted to “protect the privacy of those who gave the interview and those mentioned in the interviews.”

“I believe identifying the other employees mentioned in the documents serves no legitimate public purpose,” Shelby said.

The surveys share a common theme indicating the department had low morale, poor leadership and a sometimes hostile work environment. All but one of the surveys cite the police chief, Henry, by name or mention the general administration contributing to that employees’ departure or aspects of the department that person did not like.

Only one of the eight doesn’t explicitly point to Henry, but when asked about what could have been done to keep that person from leaving, the former employee responded, “a different leadership.” While this employee only gives sparse details about his departure, the person pointed to poor morale and a negative work environment.

In response to what could have been done to keep the person from leaving, another former officer said the administration should have done a better job at addressing a morale problem, and the administration did not value the opinions of lower employees.

“The previous chief (Tom Watt) was in constant communication with employees and engaged with employees and made employees feel like they were part of the family,” one of the former officers said. “I believe the current chief was building a wall around himself by implementing policies and rules that would prevent him from being sued, regardless of how it affected the employees.”

Another former officer said Henry is the reason he left the department because “once he decides he doesn’t like you, he will do whatever it takes to get rid of you.”

The former officers sometime describe the work environment as toxic, full of micromanaging and lacking respect for officers who have been there for several years. Another officer said in the survey, “There is a lot that I am keeping myself from saying because I am trying to be careful of what I say because I know how the story has been twisted as far as what went on with me.”

Henry’s lawyer responds

Richardson said Tuesday afternoon that he questioned the validity of these exit surveys because they’re anonymous. So it’s unknown whether these surveys are accurate or not, he said, because the person who made the statements are unknown and the circumstance for why the people left are unknown.

With the city releasing these documents now, Richardson said the city is attempting a “smear campaign” against Henry because he decided to stand up for himself. He noted that in previous comments from the city, which announced Henry’s retirement, they praised Henry for his years of service and dedication.

“If the city wants to go on a smear campaign against a man that not a month ago whose praises they were singing and contradict themselves like that, you know what — bring it on,” Richardson said. “All that this does is help my case because it tells the public they can’t believe a word that comes out of those folks’ mouth because they keep changing their story.”

In an emailed statement from Hefton Tuesday afternoon, the city manager said the exit interviews released by the city Tuesday show that “a lot of misinformation” has been issued by the Richardson Law Firm regarding Henry and a possible lawsuit.

“We know the same law firm has contacted other employees in the City of Sherman and encouraged them to sue as well,” Hefton said in his statement. “We know some people still have questions regarding Otis’s departure, and we want to answer as many of those questions as we can. But because Otis has chosen to involve his lawyers, we are limited in what we are able to say. We are, however, absolutely confident that a change in leadership has been extremely positive for the Sherman Police Department. We hear as much from our officers every day.”

As the documents stay anonymous, Richardson noted “they’re probably not worth the paper they’re written on.” He also questioned whether the city thought to ask the police department if its officers wanted to be led by a chief without command experience.

“The more pieces of this puzzle that start to get pieced together, the more this whole thing looks like it was specifically engineered by our city manager to put this fellow — by all accounts people say he’s a nice guy with zero command experience — into the job of chief of police,” Richardson said. “To do that, they had to get the guy out of the way who already had the job.”

Flores became a patrol officer for Sherman in 2007 and was eventually promoted to sergeant in May 2015. He also served in the honor guard, criminal investigation division and as a field training officer. Flores said in December that he left the department to work in city management later in 2015. He said the move was a career decision to expand his role within city government, and it provided valuable experience in working alongside city management.

Response from the city manager

As part of his written statement Tuesday, Hefton said Flores exceeds every metric the state of Texas requires for a chief of police.

“He’s the first minority police chief in the history of our city,” Hefton said. “He’s one of the few chiefs of police in the entire state with hands-on experience managing an HR (human resources) department. And above and beyond all of that, he is a man of outstanding character who has done a tremendous job in a very short time rebuilding the trust of our officers in their chief of police.”

Henry was named Sherman’s chief of police in March 2013, taking over after Watt retired. Henry began his career with the Sherman Police Department as a reserve officer in 1983 and worked his way up before being promoted to assistant chief in 2005.

Flores holds a Texas Master Peace Officer license and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, says the news release issued last month announcing his appointment. He also has an associate degree in business administration from Grayson College and a bachelor’s degree in business from Texas A&M University at Commerce.