Regret, many questions in wake of Edmonds police chief pick

A decision to hire Sherman Pruitt as Edmonds’ top cop was reversed, as questions about his background became public.

Sherman Pruitt

Sherman Pruitt

EDMONDS — Three Edmonds City Council members regret rushing the confirmation of Sherman Pruitt as the city’s next police chief — a decision made before it became public knowledge that Pruitt had a past allegation of domestic violence on his record, that he sued the City of Arlington over the arrest of his wife, and that he omitted required information on his resume.

Mayor Mike Nelson had named the Sauk-Suiattle tribal police chief to become the top cop in town Dec. 3, selecting him instead a 25-year veteran of the department, following a national search.

Council members Susan Paine, Laura Johnson and Luke Distelhorst all voted to speed up the confirmation process by a week. Last week, each voted to confirm Pruitt. The decision was later reversed because Pruitt failed to disclose he had applied for a police officer job in Lake Stevens, but had been rejected following a background check, according to a withdrawal letter from the mayor.

On Thursday, council members co-signed a letter stating they wished they had been more patient.

“We three are in a spot we did not intend — by allowing the decision to move the Police Chief confirmation process to be advanced by a week, the unanticipated, late-arriving information … would have avoided some of the pain felt by our community,” they wrote. “In hindsight, the original timeline should not have been changed.”

One notable name was absent from the letter, council president Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, who joined them in the narrow 4–3 vote. Also not signing on were the council members who opposed the Pruitt pick: Vivian Olson, Diane Buckshnis and Kristiana Johnson.

Jamie Holter, a city spokesperson hired in March, resigned earlier this week, indicating the police chief search was part of the reason. Holter said she wasn’t involved with any of the communications surrounding what became a contentious police chief search, which included an intruder hurling slurs at Pruitt during a public interview on the video call app Zoom. Holter often did not receive news releases or other information until they were made public, she said.

“At the end of the day, it wasn’t a good fit,” she said. “Sometimes, that happens. Live and learn.”

She said she was proud of the work she did during her tenure, including new bulletins, blogs and neighborhood Zoom meetings.

Assistant Police Chief Don Anderson also announced he will be retiring in April, after 32 years with the department. No reasons why were specified in a news release.

In the days since the confirmation vote, the mayor announced he withdrew the offer, saying Pruitt omitted information in his application. A press release did not initially say what information Pruitt omitted. According to a document later released to The Daily Herald, it involved his application to the Lake Stevens Police Department. When human resources director Jessica Neill Hoyson asked him about it, Pruitt reportedly said the omission was a mistake and that he had forgotten.

“As you know, I have fully supported your candidacy and was very hopeful that you would be approved as the City’s new police Chief,” Nelson wrote Tuesday in a letter to Pruitt. “Having considered the significance of the omission, and the explanation you gave for it, I have decided that the City cannot proceed with your application and have decided to withdraw the conditional.”

In a public statement the same day, Nelson said the omission could set a bad precedent for the city and the integrity of any background searches it conducts in the future, if the hiring had moved forward.

Nelson’s pick for police chief came as somewhat of a change of heart. In spring, he made public his intention to nominate Acting Chief Jim Lawless, who had served in law enforcement for 33 years. After the council pushed the mayor to conduct a nationwide search, Lawless was a finalist, but the mayor ultimately chose Pruitt, who would have become the city’s first Black police chief.

Pruitt has worked in law enforcement for 14 years. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and the Washington Air National Guard. He was also an interim police chief for the Tulalip Tribes. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration and has received extensive training through leadership programs, the city said in a news release.

Questionable events in Pruitt’s past weren’t made public by the city during the hiring process, but were published later by and the Edmonds Beacon.

Over a decade ago, Pruitt acknowledged in federal testimony that he had been investigated for domestic violence. That history came out in a federal lawuit where Pruitt and his wife sued the City of Arlington for what they believed to be a wrongful arrest during an investigation of telephone harassment in 2007. According to them, Arlington police officer Jonathan Ventura — who now serves as the city’s chief of police — pushed the door open, dragged Pruitt’s wife out of the home and handcuffed her.

In a police report, Ventura noted Pruitt rushed home in a marked Tulalip police car, still wearing his officer’s uniform and armed with a handgun. Pruitt reportedly yelled at Ventura, demanded details of the investigation and tried several times to debate about Washington state law. Ventura told him to consult with an attorney.

Ventura wrote that he felt Pruitt’s behavior bordered on obstruction, noting he was “raising his voice, yelling, flailing his arms, and causing a disturbance in the middle of a public street directly in front of his home.”

According to the lawsuit, Pruitt’s wife was later charged, but those charges eventually were dropped.

The ensuing lawsuit against the city — which ended with no monetary award for either side — dredged up some of Pruitt’s past as a police officer. When he was first starting out with Seattle police in 2004, Pruitt only made it a few months in the academy before he was asked to resign, according to transcripts of a video deposition. He claimed not to know why.

In another brief exchange under oath, Pruitt was asked about the past allegations of domestic violence.

“Now, Mr. Pruitt, you’ve been the subject of a domestic-violence investigation involving your wife; isn’t that true?” said Arlington city attorney Richard Jolley, according to transcripts obtained by The Daily Herald.

“Yes,” Pruitt said.

“In fact, there was a warrant out for your arrest because of that particular incident, correct?” Jolley asked.

“Yes,” Pruitt said.

Jolley also asked about Pruitt’s first wife, who got a protection order against Pruitt, when he was still serving in the military. As a result of his ex-wife’s allegations, Pruitt had to attend a 16-week men’s program, according to court documents. However, Pruitt said those were “verbal arguments,” not a domestic violence case.

According to section 1000.3.3 of the Edmonds police policy manual, a candidate for recruitment would be disqualified if he or she made “admission(s) of any act of domestic violence as defined by law, committed as an adult.” The policy doesn’t specify if that means a guilty plea in court.

At the Dec. 8 meeting to approve Pruitt, council members alluded to information that had not been previously discussed. Council member Olson suggested there was at least “one significant hole” in the city’s background check on Pruitt, and wondered aloud if the check was thorough enough.

Mayor Nelson bristled.

“Council member Olson are you actually questioning my staff member now about her abilities?” he asked.

Olson reiterated that she questioned the thoroughness of the background check.

“I’m not going to have this be a questioning of our human resources director,” Nelson said.

Olson said little else on the matter.

In a statement, Nelson said he would be starting another nationwide search in the new year.

“I am committed now, more than ever, to my vision for our police department — a department that is a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and a safer space for Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color in our community,” he said in the statement. “I want our department to be an example for other police departments in Washington.”

At this week’s council meeting, Olson suggested Nelson should instead make Lawless the permanent chief, and “forgo needless taxpayer expenditure on another national search.”

Buckshnis agreed.

Fraley-Monillas pushed back.

As for Paine, Johnson and Distelhorst, they wrote that they hope for more transparency during the selection process in the future.

“Together, we need a clearly stated path forward which restores faith in decision making and our professional process,” they wrote. “A clear path to meet our community’s changing needs. A clear path using collaboration and mutual understanding.”

Herald writer Joseph Thompson contributed to this story.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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