This article was updated May 27 to clarify that the description of police pulling over a Black man occurred in unincorporated Snohomish County rather than Edmonds.
The fallout over the city’s bruising struggle to find a new police chief has brought a national conversation over racial equity, social justice and policing to Edmonds. My Edmonds News is launching a series of stories to examine what’s at stake and how the dialogue could change the city’s approach to policing, equity and social services.
One flashpoint for the conversation? A report issued in late January by Mayor Mike Nelson’s Equity and Social Justice Task Force that recommended the Edmonds Police Department improve how it works with communities of color. The report, which emphasized a need for additional officer training and better community engagement, was issued six weeks after Nelson withdrew his choice for the city’s new chief of police – Sauk Suiattle Tribal Chief Sherman Pruitt. Nelson said he withdrew the job offer because Pruitt had “omitted relevant details from his application” – Pruitt failed to disclose he had applied for a police officer job in Lake Stevens 10 years earlier.
Pruitt is Black, and Nelson confirmed in a Jan. 29 interview with My Edmonds News that monthly reports he was receiving from the Equity and Social Justice Task Force as it was developing its policing recommendations influenced his decision– along with other factors — to appoint Pruitt to the job. (Long-time Edmonds Assistant Police Chief Jim Lawless, who is white, was also a candidate for the position. He served as acting chief for more than a year before leaving the city for a job in Marysville.)
In announcing Pruitt’s appointment, Nelson stated that “social justice, and equity and accountability to the community are important issues being raised in every town in our nation,” and added he believed that Pruitt was the best candidate to adapt to “this changing police environment.”
Before the Edmonds City Council voted 4-3 to confirm Pruitt – which itself was fraught with controversy when questions were raised about domestic violence incidents in Pruitt’s background – the council heard from residents who said the change in police department leadership would be good not only for Edmonds, but for families of color. In voting for Pruitt’s appointment, Councilmember Luke Distelhorst said “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.
Community reaction to both the police chief appointment process and the task force report was swift and divided. Some residents questioned the backgrounds, experiences and biases of the 13 people serving on the task force, suggesting that predetermined agendas were at play following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police office. That speculation was blasted by others — including the mayor himself – who said in a March interview with My Edmonds News that those criticizing the task force report were “attacking the messenger not the message. You’re fixated on who said it, not what they are saying.”
“Let’s focus on what these volunteer citizens are raising, and let’s address those issues,” Nelson said.
Former Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan, who retired in January 2019 after more than 40 years with the department, was one of those who had problems with the task force report. In an interview Tuesday, he stressed that he welcomes criticism directed at police, and sees the calls for change following George Floyd’s death as “opportunities to do a better job.” But he said he was disappointed that the report wasn’t more collaboratively prepared — so that task force members and police could together discuss the recommendations and determine needed action steps — before the report was released to the public.
The fact the task force began its work after Floyd’s death also likely influenced not only how the task force approached its work, but the report’s recommendations, Compaan said. “Rather than a report that’s useful and can be actionable going forward…I just felt it was more of an indictment against the police department,” he said.
Task force member Dedie Davis, a 20-year Edmonds resident, acknowledged during an April 2021 Black in Edmonds roundtable discussion that the task force report “split the community,” adding “everyone is so angry and so divided.”
Factoring into the conversation about policing in Edmonds has been an ongoing discussion about racism, and whether communities of color feel safe living in this city of 42,000 where 80% of its residents are white. Longtime Edmonds City Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas added fuel to that burning question when she told a KING-TV reporter – just prior to voting with the city council majority to confirm Pruitt — that the Sauk-Suiattle chief would be a good pick given “all the racism in Edmonds.” In a later interview with My Edmonds News, she stated that her remarks were taken out of context, adding she believes “a very small percentage, maybe 1 to 2%,” of those living in Edmonds are racist.
During a December 2020 online roundtable discussion, Black in Edmonds host Alicia Crank said that “Edmonds is not a racist city. Does racism exist among certain people here? Absolutely. It’s in Anytown USA. Edmonds is not special or exempt to those types of behaviors.”
One particularly visible incident of racism – when a Black family was threatened while walking along Sunset Avenue in 2014 – inspired the Edmonds City Council decision in April 2015 to form the Edmonds Diversity Commission. Since then, the commission has been working to establish initiatives – from a film series to youth events — that proactively celebrate diversity in Edmonds. And the commission has also weighed in on several racist incidents – ranging from hate message graffiti to teens threatened in a parking lot – that have been reported during the past several years.
Crank’s Black in Edmonds series of roundtable discussions has also highlighted – over the course of several months – stories from both longtime and new residents who have experienced racism in the city.
Dedie Davis in the April 2021 roundtable described the experience of one of her three sons who was racially profiled, while walking home from a football game, “because he was Black. I’ve had him walk down the street…and have someone roll down their window and say ‘hey n-word’ on 196th in Edmonds. My 14-year-old, when he was in the fourth grade was called n-word on the bus and was told to go to the back of the bus because he was brown.”
Eric Butler, who along with his wife Karin own Edmonds-based Hunniwater Co., said during a February 2021 Black in Edmonds roundtable that “there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of doing” when it comes to addressing racism in the city. “I’d like to feel like Edmonds is this beautiful place where everybody gets along and everybody’s perfect.”
Butler and his family live in unincorporated Snohomish County, which is served by the Snohomish Couty Sheriff’s Office. “The reality is, I take a right out of my driveway and I’m pulled over (by police). Why?” The officer’s response, he said, is “It’s a routine check.”
Now, he worries about the same thing happening to his three sons when they start driving.
“This is going to be the place where my boys are raised – it’s got to be better,” Butler said.
The community conversation is likely to continue, especially as the demographics of Edmonds continues to shift. Nelson addressed this in a My Edmonds News interview, noting that the city is “at a place right now where our population’s getting younger, it’s getting more diverse, changes are happening, expectations are happening in terms of what we want our police services to be.”
One way Nelson hopes to address the city’s changing needs is by conducting an audit of current police department services, now underway through the Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM).
“We have had the same number of people on patrol for a decade and our city has grown yet we have the same number of police officers,” Nelson explained. “Logically, there’s probably some gaps.” At the end of the day, the mayor said, “we want to take a look under the hood and see how it’s running. If there need to be some fixes, great. If things are running smoothly, great too.”
Retired police chief Craig Junginger, an associate with CPSM, is working on the Edmonds audit. “We look at a police department from top to bottom and side to side, property and evidence,” he explained. The team includes three people, all of whom have years of experience as top-level police managers, he said, adding: “A lot of times when ideas come in from outside subject-matter experts, they are more well-received.”
According to the city, a final audit report is expected from CPSM in approximately seven weeks.
The city is also embarking on another significant change this year: developing a new human services program that was approved by the city council as part of the 2021 city budget. The council allocated $500,000 to the effort, and voted in March to contract with a human services agency to provide a social worker for the program – with the possibility of hiring a staff member later.
Nelson said the new program will address the needs of residents who have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as others generally struggling to make ends meet, such as senior citizens on fixed incomes who can barely afford their property taxes.
“As we bring on a social worker, they are going to tackle a broad range of things,” Nelson said. “Food assistance, to housing to mental health to senior needs to disability services.”
In the past, the Edmonds Police Department shared a part-time social worker with City of Lynnwood police, but Nelson said that police interaction will represent “only a very small segment” of what the new social worker job entails.
As the city considers the future of policing and human services, there’s one group in Edmonds that hopes consideration will be given to a bigger question: “What is the problem we are trying to solve?”
Tom Mesaros, a former Edmonds City Councilmember, is president of the newly formed Edmonds Civic Roundtable,while Carl Zapora, a retired Verdant Health Commission Superintendent, serves on the board. Both say that reactions to the mayor’s task force report, as well as discussions regarding how the city’s policing and human services roles could change, point to the need for a good process that involves the entire community.
When it comes to examining the police department, it’s important to consider “what truly is the issue here and what’s the impact on the community,” said Mesaros, who has lived in Edmonds for more than 25 years. “Let’s look at our demographic. How do we make everyone in that demographic feels welcome and see this is a place they can come, live and feel included?”
Mesaros also talked about importance of city leaders separating the politics of those who elected them to office from the development of inclusive policies. “If you are going to be successful, you have to go beyond the people that helped get you there,” he said.
Gathering opinions and having a good process is better for the community, but those processes do take time, Mesaros said.
Zapora then quoted the following from Albert Einstein: “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.”
In the coming series of articles, we will explore the following:
– Part 2: Policing in Edmonds now. Four officers share what it’s like to be a police officer 2021, and their desires to be part of the conversation about what police work will look like in the future.
— Part 3: Edmonds policing will change. New state laws, new strategies will impact the way cops do their job.
– Part 4: Police and social workers — who is on the new “front line”?
– Part 5: Searching (again) for a police chief.
— By Teresa Wippel