The future of policing in Edmonds: Part 1 — How we got here

Jim Lawless, left, and Sherman Pruitt were finalists for the Edmonds Police Chief job in December 2020.

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.)

Mayor Mike Nelson

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.

Retired Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan

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.”

Alicia Crank

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

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

  1. Finding a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Policy changes, legislation will never end discrimination, hate. Individuals should be held accountable, not a community.

    2020 set a record for violent crime in this country, 2021 on track to overtake those figures.

    CDC data from 2018, shows 19,141 homicides in the US. Let’s start holding criminals accountable and at the same time discuss with our community, children the culture of violence in the country. Glorification of violence must end!

  2. It seems to me that when “racial” issues are as anecdotal and infrequent as provided in this report , it demonstrates that in the big picture Edmonds is a very welcoming city. I have lived here since 1980, raised our kids here and one thing I had never heard of or seen is “systemic racism” , until now..

    1. Frank ya, It’s the reason we are moving outa here to someplace more racially comfortable.

    2. Frank, the journalists used a few examples of racism in our community to illustrate a point. It’s not the burden of this article to list every incident. That does not mean these are the only incidents or that it’s “infrequent” or just “anecdotal” although it is understandable that this might not be an issue you have experienced yourself or have heard a lot about from your peers. how long you and your family have lived here, and felt welcomed here, is a great anecdote of it’s own but has nothing to do with the reality of systemic racism.

      1. Ms. Cossu,
        Here is a reality check for you: this community, this county, this state and this Nation are so “systemically racist” that people from every corner of the planet are trying to get here and many dying in the process. We are so “systemically racist” that America is the most ethnically diverse and welcoming nation on the planet.

        1. The immigration system in America is so racist that my white parents were both able to come here and succeed while other people have to DIE trying. But I’m happy to consider whatever “reality check” you feel you can provide to explain how you quantify and qualify how “welcoming” we are. -C. Cossu (they/them)

        2. Frank, you certainly are correct. We are immigrants, we know. Cuban & Panamanian, hard work, good ethics and lots of friends have joined us. This is our reality and truth.

      2. Explain the systematic racism that exists in the community? I’ve seen poor and underprivileged the community. They come in all colors. I’ve also witnessed discrimination; it comes in all forms, and not unique to a race.

        1. Eric, there is evidence of a lot of systemic racism all around us. I’ll start with the fact that your first assumption about the topic exposed a bias you have that lead you immediately equate race with poverty and homelessness. This is because we lived with a system for CENTURIES that prevented people of color from obtaining wealth or property or status and many of the systems that put that situation in place are either still here (certain laws that were created to target people of color and their activities) OR only very recently got addressed but the impacts still linger.

          We still have systems that give our non-white and non-English speaking neighbors less access to educational opportunity and pay them less money in the workplace. These systems are all around us and are deeply engrained in every policy in government and private business and education and health care.

          It will take a very long time to detangle and dismantle it all, but it takes extra long if we have to stop that work every few minutes to RE-explain what it all means and comfort all of the sensitive readers who aren’t listening to any of this and just assume they are being called “racist” then trying to re-center the energy on alleviating their white guilt.

          Either way, discrimination is just one example of systemic racism and bias in action, but since you brought it up, there is plenty of that in Edmonds, too. Totally understandable if that is not YOUR experience but I do hope that, if it is sincerely something you are curious about, you can poke around all of the MyEdmondsNews articles about these topics and incidents from even just the last few years alone. I also highly recommend reading the report from the Equity & Social Justice Task Force.

        2. I don’t equate race with poverty. It’s the main argument by people suggesting systematic racism. I was refuting it.

          Decades ago yes, but today the playing field has been leveled. Countless examples of successful people of color. Thankfully many in the BIPOC community refuse to play victims and write their own narrative.

        3. Eric, the article you shared answers your question. Did you think that happened in the US education system?

      3. Christine, in response to your other comment about immigration, my immigrant family has had many struggles in America that they believe had to do with our race. And despite this, I don’t think any of us consider ourselves oppressed. In fact, when I see the Muslim immigrant community in Europe, and the Muslim immigrant community in thr United States, I feel like Europe is far more “systemically racist” than America.

        I don’t have a problem believing that systemic racism exists. However, activists who claim to fight against it never bother to define it. What is systemic racism? What specific systems are racist? How are those systems perpetuating racism? I’m sorry but a few poor excuses for human beings yelling racial slurs isn’t proof of a systemic problem, it’s prove that bad human beings exist. I’m not sure what laws you expect will change bad peoples beliefs.

        I personally strongly support harsher punishments for people who commit crimes motivated by hate. Hate crime laws upset a lot of people, but it is a fact that the justice system always has taken motivation into account when charging someone for a crime. If hate crime laws shouldn’t exist because “what difference does it make why they did it”, then “aggravated assault” shouldn’t exist either.

        To offer my own, “great anecdote”, I have lived in edmonds my entire life, I am 19 now, and have never once in edmonds have someone say something racist to me. I’m sure racism in Edmonds exists and I’ve just been fortunate enough not to experience it. But to call edmonds specifically a racist city is absurd.

    3. I agree, this is so overblown. If you look hard enough you can find anything you want.

      1. And, Carl, if you close your eyes and ears, you don’t have to see or hear the real experiences of anyone else in your community and you can just keep pretending that none of it is real.

  3. frankly nelson behavior was an act of racism. the city had a well qualified individual with good content of character, the mayor decided that color of ones skin was more important than quality of character. the mayors decision devoid of any consideration of character resulted in failure. bottom line the mayor leftist/liberal political correct nonsense led to this situation.

  4. “Mike Nelson: We need to build trust and collaboration with our citizens. I believe that starts with more transparency in our City government. Issuing press releases or holding a public hearing while many people are unavailable is not sufficient. We need to proactively engage our citizens by coming to them directly instead of expecting our citizens to come to us.

    We need to engage on a variety of social media platforms as part of regular, ongoing communication about current and future City projects and to address citizen questions. We also need to incorporate regularly scheduled neighborhood meetings to inform our citizens on what’s happening in the city, new issues that are on the horizon, and listen firsthand to the problems our community is facing.

    We need to facilitate an environment where the exchange of ideas is open and collaborative.”

    7/16/2019 Herald (Campaign Debate)

    I trust that this MEN series will be as professional and factual as is has been its history. However, now months and months after the events, I believe any cooperation by Mr. Nelson and his loyalists is very suspect and will only be serving and an entree word salad. For Nelson to refuse at the time these events occurred to explain justify or respond to questions posed by the citizens of Edmonds because “that is the past” and then accuse any resident who dared seek the most basic facts of the COP debacle as “shameful” is repulsive, reprehensible, and revealing. Nelson REFUSED to account for his actions – right, wrong or indifferent. Thus I have great (and justifiable mistrust) in anything he might posit going forward.

  5. That was a well written piece. The only part I take issue with was describing the community reaction as anger. It became fashionable to declare all caucasians as racist. Our federal representative has a long history with Liberation Road, although you can’t get any Washington news agency to cover it. That is a core teaching of that horribly racist organization. People have been pushing for a race war since Charles Manson, all in search of power for themselves. I don’t think anger is the right term. Absolutely unwilling to let others falsely classify us? Absolutely, every time and everywhere.

  6. “Brad Shipley: The City has no centralized communication department. This means the current method of communication tasked to individuals within each department who­­ – while doing their best – are not likely trained in communications. This results in inconsistent messaging that is hard for residents to follow. A first step to improving relations between the City and residents would be to budget for and hire a professionally trained communications person to ensure consistency among city departments and make it easier for residents to find the information they seek. Secondly, the City should engage residents early in the process so they can help define the problem before the City seeks a solution. An iterative process can help foster the collaboration, creativity, and consensus needed to define a vision that everyone can share. This will result in less surprises at the end of a project.” Herald 2019 Campaign An excellent observation and plan. Excellent candidate hired. Resigns well within one year as a direct result of Nelson et al refusal to communicate with her on any meaningful level. The reasonable inference to be drawn is that Nelson and his like minded followers did not want any collaboration cooperative or transparent process. The City Information Officer didn’t know about the Pruitt decision until she read it MEN. The current state of affairs with Nelson et al has not changed in any way shape or form and has only been exacerbated. Tree Commission, Housing Commission, “Walkable” Weekends non compromise, the embarrassment that was Nelson et al refusal to reimburse legitimate council member expenses, coupled with venomous racial attacks on the council member, and ridiculous unsupported claims of alleged “liability” that the City Attorney immediately shot down (had any of the speakers had the good sense or integrity) to inquire about before opining on legal matters in the political abstract. Moving forward – trying to have any real meaningful conversation about any policy direction whatever the subject matter may be or however well intentioned – seems so sadly fruitless and frustrating.

    1. What really ironic about what Brad Shipley is saying is that Communications is Councilman Luke Distelhorst’s day job for Sound Transit.

  7. I have never believed Edmonds was racist. You cannot stop any, white, or otherwise. Unless they break the law and you can arrest them. The end
    Do I believe the current Mayor is racist? I’m not sure..but he sure sounds like he wants to climb the liberal democrat party ladder.

  8. As a former City of Edmonds employee of almost 15 years I dont believe that Edmonds is a Racist city. I do believe it has a severe lack of leadership which I believe is at the root of the problem. If you look at the turnover within the city over the last 3 years it’s a very troubling picture. Many of the hard working employees that moved on had been their for 10 years or more taking their valuable institutional knowledge, skills and training with them that related to the cities Wastewater Treatment Plant and Police Department to name a few, I’m sure there have been other key positions that have had turnover that I’m not aware of. As with others individuals that have moved on to find jobs elsewhere I have to say that it was like a breath of fresh air leaving Edmonds but for me like a gut punch at the same time. I enjoyed working with a great group of individuals who came together everyday to make sure that we Operated & Maintained the cities Wastewater treatment plant to the highest standards possible, but treatment plant employees are in a constant state of fear, worry and overwhelming stress and why the plant is in disarray and being mismanaged costing the citizens of Edmonds MONEY that could be better spent. So back to my original thought I still don’t believe that there is a Racism Problem in Edmonds. I believe there is a Lack of Leadership Problem in Edmonds that will only get worse if the Citizens don’t wake up and elect a Mayor and Counsel that have a moral compass as well a backbone and not afraid to fix the tough problems and be accountable for there decisions!

    1. Bob, thank you for your service and insight. The lack of leadership is very clear across the board but I’d like you to consider that we can have BOTH poor leadership AND a system build on racism and unconscious bias at the same time and need to address both issues. They are different and connected at the same time and the solutions will be related to each other but still require separate strategies.

  9. I’m afraid I’m not willing to completely abandon an economic system or our republic simply because a few members of our community (who don’t know me) have decided all of a sudden to declare me a racist. Going to have to do better than that. Thankfully, many residents of this great town seem to feel the same way. This movement is a white liberal movement and devoid of truth. Ask the mayor.

    1. No one expects you to completely abandon a system that was designed to completely benefit you, Glen. Just don’t pretend that system was designed for everyone and don’t be surprised when other Americans fight for a system that benefits ALL Americans.

      1. What system benefits ALL Americans, Christine? I am unaware of any such system.

        Typically when someone says that, they really mean that they are going to take from someone who earned it to give it to someone who didn’t. That doesn’t seem to work for the person who earned it.

        1. Tina, A system designed by a government that reflects the population it serves would be a great start to defining what that might look like. Right now, our own City Council sometimes struggles to understand the needs of all members of the community because of this.

          A system that benefits everyone does not have to mean taking anything from any one group or person, especially in a great nation with sometimes limitless resources and a lot of creativity and imagination. It can be as simple as offering information about existing programs in more than one language so more Americans have access. It can be as simple as ASKING people that they need instead of assuming their needs are the same as yours.

          Of course, the type of power George is worried about abandoning or losing in his comment isn’t necessarily stuff that was earned to begin with. A system that benefits everyone sometimes means recognizing that some of our stuff was stolen to begin with, giving it back, saying sorry, and promising not to do that again. You know, just like in kindergarten.

  10. This is great. We NEED to have the Marxism debate in this country and we need to do it thoroughly. If the advocates of Marxism can prove that it provides a better pathway for all, so be it. Economic systems, in and of themselves, are not racist. I am more than happy to compare the economic freedoms of capitalism versus Marxism, as well as the societal conditions involved. I have no problem looking back at the 20th century, I just don’t want to relive it. And any personal benefits I have been granted in my life are fully open for discussion. They are NOT open for assumption. I am an individual with my own history and will not tolerate being stereotyped by my race. Same as I treat others.

  11. That’s the problem Glen, you can’t show a Marxist community that is “thriving.” When you keep hiring more and more people and departments etc for “diversity. Causes” Do people think that is free? Do you think that helps? That increases my taxes..(taking my money and distributing it to others.)” Whom I don’t know….Currently Christine is anti white. She proclaims our racist community has no place in society. Our claims are we don’t see any or so little of racism. Does it exist? Probably some..but what can you do? Change all of our laws, increase a huge bureaucracy to monitor a couple of people? Is that the greater good of a entire city? My guess is 8-10% of our society is currently not happy with the USA, the problem is they are trying to ruin our system with the aid of the media. Covid hasn’t helped. I’m sorry most of it is happening in Democrat states.

    1. I think a bigger problem, Joy, is that you and Glen have both literally invented some story of someone saying “Edmonds is Racist” and that I have made some claims about our community and whether or not it has “a place in society” (whatever that even means?). None of that actually happened. Those are not real things. Maybe someone at some point called you a “racist” and this article is bringing up some feelings you had about that?

      If we are randomly making up statistics, what percentage of “our society” (again… not sure what that group even is) is comprised of people making things up, drumming up hysteria around this false information, then getting upset when they get “cancelled” aka people stop supporting your campaign of misinformation?

      I’m grateful that you are not currently experiencing any racism. Congrats?

  12. Christine, honestly I have no clue what you are talking about. I had a business downtown Edmonds for years, I did not once witness any racism. I worked with the Chamber of Commerce, countless events I chaired, worked with many different colors of our community. Still no racism. I think I have a pretty good idea of Edmonds. I have never been called racist because I hired many different colors of our community. Don’t most families in this world have many mixes of ethnicities? We do in my family. We have white, Asian, Islanders and Black. I doubt I’m different from other families…

  13. Joy, apparently your family looks just like mine. It’s amazing that in your business and my military service, nobody looked at the color of our skin and judged us. I went from a small town in this state to Virginia, working with every minority group that exists. I’ve seen actual racists, not here in Edmonds. I was never called a racist until white liberals locally and in the media decided they didn’t like our president, then it was open season. The people actually behind this movement should scare people by the lengths of stereotyping they are willing to commit to overthrow capitalism and their number of converts. And they will leave our black friends and family in the wake.

    1. Joy and Glen,
      Thank you for standing up to this marxist crap. Racism (while ugly) is not the main problem faced by Edmonds and this country.

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