Police chief pick: Botched from the start | Editor's Note
Last updated 12/29/2020 at 10:17am
Mayor Mike Nelson’s attempt to ramrod his police chief pick through confirmation at the last minute was part of a flawed selection process that seemed doomed from the start.
It started in April, when Nelson said he was confident Acting Police Chief Jim Lawless was the right pick for Edmonds. Although the city had hired a firm to search for a police chief after Al Compaan’s retirement last December, the search was terminated in March with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, councilmembers reminded Nelson that Edmonds’ code dictated that at least three candidates had to be considered in filling an open director’s seat.
So 22 candidates applied, and Nelson narrowed his choice to Lawless and Sauk-Siuattle Police Chief Sherman Pruitt.
In a move surprising many, especially given his high praise for Lawless, Nelson went with Pruitt.
Many quickly came out against the appointment – among them former Chief Compaan – and Ross Sutton, president of the Edmonds Police Officers Association executive board.
They weren’t disinterested bystanders. Compaan called the selection process “sleazy.”
Sutton said his association followed the selection process from beginning to end, and the EPOA independently reviewed the final two candidates’ qualifications.
Given the information available in the candidate resumes and open-source materials, the EPOA expressed strong concerns to the mayor and council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas about potential issues in Pruitt’s eligibility, qualifications, and background.
“To say that the EPOA was surprised by the mayor’s appointment and the rushed City Council confirmation of the appointed candidate, given our concerns, is an understatement,” Sutton wrote in a letter to the Beacon. (Read the full letter at #bit.ly/3noiucR#.)
He said the EPOA recognizes the authority of Mayor Nelson and the City Council in selecting directors.
“However, because of what has transpired in this process, the EPOA finds itself in a very difficult and awkward position.
“As an organization that has trained law enforcement background investigators as members, we believe based upon information readily available that if the appointed candidate’s application were received for an entry-level or lateral police officer position in this department, he would have been disqualified from employment based on our department standards and automatic disqualifiers.
“These requirements for employment of EPOA members do not allow for any compromise of disqualifying criteria.”
What was the cause of the pushback, which included scores of Edmonds residents’ no-holds-barred comments in letters and comments to the Beacon, as well as in social media and during council public comment?
The obvious: Nelson and four councilmembers (if you’re paying attention, you might notice a bloc is forming) chose a police chief in charge of a tribal community of 400 or so members over someone with years of service in the Edmonds Police Department, including as assistant and acting chief of police.
Comments seemed to rest not on the size of the tribe itself or on Pruitt’s history there, but on his lack of experience in important issues he could face in a city of 42,000 residents. As police chief of the Sauk-Suiattle tribe, he oversees eight officers and two civilians.
Edmonds has 58 authorized officers, with one open position and two positions frozen.
During Pruitt’s confirmation Dec. 8, Councilmember Vivian Olson said she did not feel he had the experience and readiness to take on a large municipal program.
There was also the issue of Pruitt’s domestic violence past – easily found on the second page of a Google search – which he admitted he had been charged for but never convicted of. Further, it appears that the mayor and councilmembers, as well as the city’s HR director, were aware of those domestic violence red flags before confirming him.
According to Edmonds Police Department standards for hiring, an automatic disqualification in a lateral move to the department includes “admission(s) of any act of domestic violence as defined by law, committed as an adult.”
Domestic violence is certainly an issue in Edmonds, as it is elsewhere. Edmonds police reports confirm this.
A fatal shooting in September at Boo Han Oriental Market in Edmonds was a domestic violence incident that came to a tragic conclusion.
In a news conference after the shooting, Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson said, "I am sickened by the abuser who torments and preys on their family members, the innocent. In Washington state last year, 42% of all killings were from domestic violence."
With Nelson’s strong words on domestic violence, it certainly begged the question: Why would he go ahead with someone – someone who would have been the city’s police chief – who admitted to domestic violence charges and spent 16 weeks in a probation program?
Would Pruitt have had credibility when speaking about domestic violence in Edmonds?
But the elephant in the room, of course, turned out to be race.
Pruitt is Black. Lawless is White. The genie fled the bottle when Fraley-Monillas told a local TV station – in no uncertain terms – that Pruitt’s race was a factor and important “with all the racism in Edmonds.”
While naming Pruitt, Nelson may have overlooked Pruitt’s lack of municipal experience and his history of domestic violence to make a statement on his desire for a new direction in the police department. That’s his prerogative.
During a candidate forum last month, Pruitt said that police need to make sure that they’re being transparent with the community: “Making sure we talk about some of the issues that are out there instead of blindly just saying, oh, it doesn’t exist. Listen to the community and be open-minded, and listen to their perspective of things, because it’s all about their perspective. Transparency and communication is key.”
Pruitt said he wanted to lead by example.
“I like to be a good role model. What I expect from my officers is what I expect from myself. I think of holding ourselves to a higher standard.”
That standard wasn’t met in this case.