By a 4-3 vote, the Edmonds City Council Tuesday night confirmed Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson’s appointment of Sauk-Suiattle Tribal Police Chief Sherman Pruitt as the next City of Edmonds Police Chief.
The council’s vote to appoint was labeled as conditional, because the city is awaiting a final written satisfactory report of Pruitt’s pyschological evaluation, which was pending Tuesday. Edmonds Human Resources Director Jessica Neill-Hoyson explained that the city did receive a verbal satisfactory report of the evaluation.
Nelson announced Dec. 3 he had selected Pruitt over Acting Police Chief Jim Lawless, who started in the Edmonds Police Department in 1995 and has served as an assistant chief since 2008. Lawless was appointed acting chief after Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan retired a year ago, and in April Nelson issued a news release stating that Lawless was his choice for permanent chief.
However, the city council insisted that Nelson follow the rules for executive-level city appointments and conduct a search process for three applicants. When three suitable applicants could not be found, the council agreed to consider two finalists: Pruitt and Lawless.
Tuesday night’s council vote came after emotionally-charged testimony from 20 people who showed up via the council’s Zoom meeting platform to talk about the selection process and the two finalists.
The vast majority of those speaking favored the appointment of Lawless rather than Pruitt, although City Attorrney Jeff Taraday pointed out later that a council vote against Pruitt would not ensure that Lawless would get the job as the selection process would likely just start over.
Those offering praise for Lawless cited his longstanding connections to Edmonds as well as his commitment to diversity within the police force. One long-time resident who moved to Edmonds 19 years ago with her wife, said the couple has been delighted by Lawless’ support of the LGBTQ community.
Many of those speaking were also critical of the council’s Monday night decision to revise the council agenda and move the vote a week earlier — to Tuesday night — and urged them to delay until next week. (Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas said that she and the mayor decided to move the vote up a week because both police chief candidates were “being trashed” on both social media and in the news media.)
The three councilmmbers on the losing end of Tuesday’s confirmation vote — Vivian Olson, Diane Buckshnis and Kristiana Johnson — also stated they favored delaying the vote, pointing to last-minute questions and concerns from citizens about Pruitt’s qualifications for the job.
But perhaps the most blistering comment came from former Police Chief Compaan, who worked in Edmonds for 41 years — including 12 years as chief — before retiring.
“I really don’t have any way to describe it, other than sleazy. And I don’t use that word lightly,” Compaan said. “If council moves forward with this tonight — with the number of unanswered questions that remain — shame on this council, shame on the mayor,” Compaan said.
Several commenters also specifically called out Council President Fraley-Monillas for remarks she made in an interview on KING-TV Monday, during which she said Pruitt would be a good pick given “all the racism in Edmonds.”
Fraley-Monillas later in the meeting defended herself, stating that she was interviewed for 10 minutes by the television station, but “two lines out of the 10 minutes that I said made it to the media. By no way did I saw that Edmonds citizens are discriminatory or were racist,” she said, adding that she was alluding instead to incidents of racism that Edmonds has experienced over the years.
Those commenters speaking in favor of Pruitt said the change in police department leadership would be good for the city — and specifically for families of color. Karin Butler said that racism exists in Edmonds, noting that her husband has been pulled over by police many times as a Black man. Seeing a police chief who is a person of color would be a good role model for her sons, Butler said, adding: “This family of color will feel more safe walking the streets of Edmonds if that (Pruitt’s appointment) happens.”
Following public comments, City Human Resources Director Jessica Neill Hoyson explained the process for conducting a background check on Pruitt, which was done by a third-party contractor. The work was based on requirements under state law, and included personal and employment history, education, law enforcement and military experience, arrests and convictions, and a financial background check. In addition, his personnel files were reviewed and he passed a polygraph test.
Councilmember Vivian Olson questioned whether the background check on Pruitt was as thorough as it needed to be, which elicited a sharp reply from Nelson. “I’m not going to have this be questioning the abiilities of my human resources director,” he said.
Olson also asked Neill Hoyson whether Pruitt had “any domestic violence instances” in his background. (A KOMO-TV report Tuesday night on Pruitt’s nomination had brought up that issue, citing testimony in a lawsuit involving Pruitt and the City of Arlington.) At first, Neill Hoyson said she didn’t think it was appropriate to discuss that matter in a public forum, but when Fraley-Monillas then asked her if Pruitt had been convicted of domestic violence, Neill Hoyson replied that the background check revealed no criminal convictions.
During the discussion about the candidates, Councilmember Luke Distelhorst asked Neill-Hoyson if Pruitt understood the challenges he may face coming to work in Edmonds, given the passionate support many in the community have expressed for Lawless.
She replied that she has spoken with Pruitt about the issue and he does understand the situation, adding he stated he would have been surprised if Edmonds residents’ hadn’t been supportive of Lawless.
Later in the discussion, Distelhorst said he hoped the community would come together to support the new chief, adding it would be “in the best interests of our residents and our city.”
Distelhorst also said he “looked forward to a brighter future ahead for all of our city’s residents. It’s important to remember that safety is defined very differently by how people experience their community. What some people consider (to be) safe, others may not,” he added.
Under the terms of his appointment, Pruitt’s employment will begin Dec. 28, 2o20. He will be paid an annual salary of $156,417, plus benefits.
A former U.S. Marine who served tours in Somalia and Iraq, Pruitt spent eight more years in the National Guard. He started his police career on the Tulalip Tribal force, where he served as a patrol officer, detective and SWAT team sergeant, and was assigned to command of the patrol, corrections, SWAT and investigations units. Pruitt has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration and is a graduate of both the Chief of Police Command Executive Academy and the Criminal Justice Executive Leadership Management Training.