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Questions raised over abrupt change for potential new Edmonds police chief

A 25-year department veteran was considered a sure choice for the job. The mayor suddenly switched his choice to someone else.

EDMONDS, Wash — Al Compaan served as Edmonds police chief for 12 years before retiring last year. His assistant chief, 25-year Edmonds Police Department veteran Jim Lawless, was assumed next in line for the job. 

Mayor Mike Nelson even put out a press release in April saying Lawless would be the man sent to the City Council for confirmation.

That was, until last Thursday, when Nelson abruptly announced his nomination of Sherman Pruitt, the current police chief on the Sauk Suiattle Indian reservation. 

"I was really disappointed and I have a lot of questions," said Compaan. "What changed all of a sudden? Why did we go off in this direction at this particular juncture?"

Sauk Suiattle is a tribe of fewer than 400 people near Darrington. Pruitt is a Marine Corps veteran and past interim chief of the Tulalip tribal police.

Compaan said, on paper, Lawless is clearly the better candidate.

"With his 25 years, he knows the city, he knows the residents, he knows the crime issues in the city. He's well connected. He has a master's degree. He's a graduate of the FBI academy. He's a sharp guy," Compaan said.

Nelson declined KING 5's request for an interview.

When announcing his nomination of Pruitt, an African American, Nelson wrote: "We are seeing many changes in policing today. Social justice, equity, and accountability to the community are important issues being raised in every town in our nation. In order to be effective and best serve our citizens, our police department must balance consistency and predictability with adaptation and change. Mr. Pruitt is well-suited not only to build on the past police work in our City but also to explore new opportunities to engage our community and provide new training and best practices to guide and grow our department into the future."

City Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas said it's actually against city code for the mayor to nominate just one candidate for police chief.

Nelson was told to broaden his search and discovered Pruitt.

"I think he will be very good for the city," said Fraley-Monillas.

The council president also believes racism is a problem in Edmonds, and Pruitt is the better pick to heal the city's racial wounds.

"In this time frame in Edmonds, I think we could use Chief Pruitt," she said. "With all the racism in Edmonds, we have somebody who has had that experience in their life. I think that's important."

Compaan, however, pushed back on that argument.

"I don't think a chief has to be any particular color, any particular ethnicity, any particular background. From my standpoint, we want the very best person for the job."

The City Council was expected to vote on Pruitt's confirmation on Dec.15, but the vote was moved up to Dec. 8.