Council votes yes on new top cop

Former police chief calls confirmation process 'sleazy'

 

Last updated 12/10/2020 at 10:20am

Edmonds City Council approved Sherman Pruitt as the city's new police chief.

Mayor Mike Nelson got his man.

The Edmonds City Council on Dec. 8 approved Nelson's selection of an outside candidate, tribal Police Chief Sherman Pruitt, over Acting Police Chief Jim Lawless, who has a long history with the department in Edmonds.

The move is provisional, as the city waits for a final report on Pruitt's psychological evaluation by an outside company. Human Resources Director Jessica Neill-Hoyson, however, said she had received a verbal report of the findings that she found satisfactory.

Approving Nelson's pick were Councilmembers Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, Luke Distelhorst, Susan Paine, and Laura Johnson.

Vivian Olson, Diane Buckshnis, and Kristiana Johnson voted against Nelson's selection.

All those confirming Pruitt suggested it was time for the city to chart a new course.

The confirmation came despite numerous citizens, speaking in the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting, who claimed Lawless was the most qualified applicant and deserved the position.

When naming Pruitt as his choice Dec. 3, Nelson confirmed that a council vote would be held Dec. 15. However, on Dec. 7, the vote was moved up a week.

The three councilmembers who voted against Pruitt's confirmation said their decisions were partly due to the speed at which the process unfolded, including the last-minute change to the agenda.

Council President Fraley-Monillas cited negative comments in the media and social media about the two police chief finalists for the reschedule.

Many of those negative comments were also directed at Fraley-Monillas, who told KING-5 that, "In this time for Edmonds, I think we could use Chief Pruitt. With all the racism in Edmonds, and somebody who's had that experience in their life, I think that's important."


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Pruitt is Black, and Lawless is White.

Three former Edmonds police officers spoke on Lawless' behalf, including Mark Marsh, Jeff Jones, and Al Compaan, who retired as police chief in December after 12 years.

"I am very troubled by this process that has been followed," Compaan said. "I am very troubled at the lack of transparency. I am troubled by the fact that the agenda was apparently changed last night, after business hours, to put this confirmation on the agenda for tonight.


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"I really have no other way to describe it, other than 'sleazy.' And I don't use that word lightly. I am very troubled; this is not the Edmonds way. I am stunned by how this matter has been handled. If council moves forward with this, with the number of unanswered questions that remain, shame on this council. Shame on the mayor."


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The Beacon reported online last week about a court case in 2008 where Pruitt and his wife, Melody, were plaintiffs in United States District Court in a case against the Arlington Police Department.

They filed against Arlington and six Arlington police officers for violations of Fourth Amendment and 14th Amendment rights, assault, battery, false arrest, malicious prosecution, outrage, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The case involved alleged threatening phone calls made by Pruitt's wife to another woman. Melody Pruitt was given a citation for telephone harassment.

In 2009, the court granted a motion for partial summary judgment on the case, and approved Arlington's motion for partial summary judgment on Pruitt's remaining claims.

A document obtained by the Beacon on Wednesday showed that Pruitt admitted his first wife obtained a restraining order against him when he served in the military more than a decade ago.

The Beacon confirmed the document's veracity with three sources. The document includes questioning of Pruitt in the 2008 case during a deposition.

Question: Now, you have also been the subject of a domestic violence investigation involving her, isn't that true?

Pruitt: We had some verbal arguments, but not a domestic violence investigation, no.

Question: Mr. Pruitt, your first wife actually obtained a restraining order, or a military protective order, as it's called, to keep you away from her, isn't that right?

Pruitt: Yes.

Question: And you had to attend a 16-week men's program because of the allegations made by your wife?

Pruitt: Yes.

At another point in the deposition, Pruitt admitted that he had a warrant out for his arrest for the alleged domestic violence incident.

On Tuesday, when pressed by Councilmember Olson on whether there was domestic violence in Pruitt's background, Neill-Hoyson said it wasn't something she could discuss in a public setting. She later, however, said that a background check – http://www.bit.ly/3m2o4jJ – conducted by a third party – revealed no criminal convictions.


At that point, Nelson chided Olson: "I'm not going to have this be questioning the abilities of my human resources director."

Calls to Nelson's cellphone were not answered Wednesday. A message said his mailbox was full.

In fact, while Neill-Hoyson was HR director for Oak Harbor in 2012, councilmembers attacked the mayor of that city for his selection of a particular fire chief. According to the Whidbey News-Times, councilmembers "implied that the selection process was a charade to appoint a predetermined candidate."


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Jim Lawless had been acting police chief since January after Compaan's retirement.

In February, the city hired a firm to search for a police chief, but the search was terminated in March with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. In April, Nelson announced that Lawless would be the city's next police chief.

"This has been a crisis like no other," Nelson said at the time. "Acting Chief Lawless has been a steady, firm hand during a time of uncertainty. I can't imagine a person better suited for this job than Jim."

Lawless' swearing in as chief was delayed as open public meeting rules prohibited certain topics government bodies could act on. That included naming a police chief. In addition, Edmonds code dictated that at least three candidates had to be considered in filling an open director's seat.


Eventually, Pruitt and another candidate, who withdrew, were interviewed. The decision came down to Pruitt or Lawless.

Nelson announced two panels to help with the police chief hiring process.

Community members included Gustavo Balderas, superintendent of the Edmonds School District; Sekou Koné, Diversity Commission member; Shubert Ho, business owner; Owen Lee, Youth Commissioner member; Jan Flom, Swedish Edmonds nursing director; and community members Darnesha Weary, Alicia Crank, and Richard Taylor.


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Law enforcement members included Ross Sutton, Edmonds Police Chief Association president; Dan Templeman, Everett police chief; James Nelson, Lynnwood police chief; and Shawn Ledford, Shoreline police chief.

"We are seeing many changes in policing today," Nelson said in a statement. "Social justice and equity and accountability to the community are important issues being raised in every town in our nation.

"In order to be effective and best serve our citizens, our police department must balance consistency and predictability with adaptation and change. This changing police environment is one we must be able to adapt to quickly, and I believe Sherman Pruitt is the best person for this task."


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Nelson pointed to Pruitt's having served 12 years with the U.S. Marine Corps and his many law enforcement roles – from patrol, investigations, and SWAT, to command staff. As police chief of two tribal agencies (Pruitt actually was interim police chief of the Tulalip Tribes, and was passed over for the chief role), Nelson said Pruitt has been responsible for the management of up to 65 staff, including such functions as patrol, K-9, criminal investigation, drug task force, SWAT Team, corrections, Fish & Wildlife, and emergency management.

Nelson said he appreciated Lawless' service to the community.

"I want to thank him for stepping up as acting chief this year during our unprecedented time of need. I sincerely hope he will continue to serve as our assistant chief."

Supporting Pruitt

One of those supporting Pruitt during public comments was Darnesha Weary, an Edmonds resident who co-owns Black Coffee Northwest in Shoreline. She was part of Nelson's community interviewing panel.

After looking at Pruitt's qualifications, she said she believed the mayor's decision was the correct choice.

"Edmonds is a racist city," she said. "And everyone that's speaking is not that person that is affected by that. I am Black, I have a Black husband, and I have a Black son, and I have a Black daughter. We can say that Edmonds is racist because we've experienced it several times."

She said she and her husband don't go to downtown Edmonds often, explaining that police have followed them both and called on him when looking for a home to purchase.

"We know the world is changing; our community is changing. There's a lot of Black and brown faces that are showing up. So it's time to move forward. I'm very offended by (a previous) comment that we're hiring him just because he's Black. That is completely untrue, and I would never stand for that.

"Black people aren't a monolith. I don't support someone just because they're Black."

 

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