Council member Vivian Olson (left), Mayor Mike Nelson (center) and council member Diane Buckshnis practiced social distancing at the Edmonds City Council meeting in March. (City of Edmonds)

Council member Vivian Olson (left), Mayor Mike Nelson (center) and council member Diane Buckshnis practiced social distancing at the Edmonds City Council meeting in March. (City of Edmonds)

Editorial: Edmonds should skip search, hire Lawless as chief

A troubled search for a new police chief should not be delayed further. Hire the acting chief.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The City of Edmonds’ search for a chief of police — to replace retired Chief Al Campaan, a law enforcement veteran of 40 years, 12 as the department’s leader — already had been delayed and complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.

But a series of missteps — by the city and by a finalist in the search — further plagued the process and announcement of a successor, now delaying the hiring more than a year after Campaan’s retirement. Mayor Mike Nelson now has announced his intentions to launch yet another nationwide search in the coming year for a new chief.

Starting the search from scratch, however, may not fix the problems of the original search and risks the loss of the other top candidate for the position.

The mayor and the city council should now go back to Nelson’s original plan, announced in April, to permanently hire acting chief Jim Lawless — an assistant chief who served under Campaan — and move on from a difficult process that will require efforts to heal divisions among mayor and council members and preserve morale among the city’s officers and other municipal employees.

After a delay caused by the pandemic, the mayor announced in October that from a list of 16 candidates from a nationwide search he had selected as the top two finalists Lawless and Sherman Pruitt, chief of police for the Sauk-Suiattle Police Department near Darrington. By Dec. 3, Nelson announced that Pruitt was his final choice, a decision that was originally scheduled for confirmation by the city council at its Dec. 15 meeting. Pruitt’s confirmation, however, was moved up a week, after which Pruitt was confirmed by a 4-3 vote on Dec. 8.

But by Dec. 14, Nelson announced that the offer of employment to Pruitt had been rescinded because Pruitt had omitted relevant information about his past and regarding his resume, including an allegation of domestic violence, a 2007 encounter with an Arlington police officer and a forced resignation from the Seattle police academy in 2004, as reported by The Herald’s Zachariah Bryan.

Those omissions, which Pruitt attributed to “forgetfulness,” rightfully disqualified Pruitt from the position, and he bares responsibility for not providing a full accounting of his record to the city. But there are questions as to whether the city performed an adequate check of Pruitt’s background and at what point Nelson and city council members were aware of potential problems with Pruitt’s record and holes in his resume, even as the council moved up the date of the confirmation vote.

The process used, its incomplete background check and the decision to move up Pruitt’s confirmation have been criticized by two Snohomish County residents with deep backgrounds in law enforcement.

Linda Forst, a retired police captain from Florida and director of the Criminal Justice Program at Shoreline Community College, in a guest commentary in Tuesday’s Herald, criticizes Nelson and the city for an incomplete background investigation.

Jay Grant, an Edmonds resident, is director and secretary general of InterPortPolice, a national advisory organization of airport and seaport police agencies, among other law enforcement associations. Grant, in a Dec. 26 letter sent to the mayor and shared with The Herald, faults the city for confirming Pruitt before background checks had been completed and for not following policies regarding hiring developed by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Grant also wrote Nelson on Dec. 8, the day Pruitt was confirmed, attempting to draw attention to court records in which Pruitt discussed the domestic violence allegation.

It’s worth noting that a Nov. 9 online public forum with Pruitt and Lawless was interrupted by racist and vulgar comments and visuals made anonymously and directed at Pruitt, who is Black.

Nelson and others were rightfully outraged by the attack on a public meeting and against Pruitt. But the desire to show due respect toward Pruitt — as well as providing full consideration to a Black candidate — should not have included a rush to hire him before all information was in.

Jim Lawless has served with the Edmonds Police Department since 1995, including 12 years as an assistant police chief. Forst, familiar with many law enforcement officials and police officers in the county, describes Lawless as “a highly respected, well-educated police professional with intimate knowledge of the city, the officers and the residents.”

The mayor has also shown confidence in Lawless, when he first offered the position to him in April: “One measure of a person’s worth is how they perform during a crisis,” Nelson said in a news release at the time. “This has been a crisis like no other. Acting Chief Lawless has been a steady, firm hand during a time of uncertainty. I can’t imagine a person better suited for this job than Jim.”

Nelson withdrew that offer after the city council declined to waive a city policy that requires consideration of at least two nominees when filling a vacancy. That was the council’s prerogative, but following the earlier nationwide search, that requirement has been satisfied.

Lawless has shown great patience throughout this process. If he’s still willing to accept the position, it should be offered to him before another search is begun.

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