Edmonds Police Chief Candidate sues, saying racism cost him job

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Edmonds police chief candidate sues, saying racism cost him job

Reprinted from the HeraldNet (Dec 16, 2023)
By Ashley Nash

Sherman Pruitt

EDMONDS — Sherman Pruitt’s job offer to become police chief of Edmonds was rescinded after a week. Now, he’s suing the city.

On Thursday, Pruitt filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleging racial discrimination from the city of Edmonds, Mayor Mike Nelson and City Council member Vivian Olson.

“Rather than judging (Pruitt) based on his outstanding qualifications and skills, Defendants unlawfully judged him based on his skin color,” reads the lawsuit filed by Bloom Law PLLC.

In 2020, Nelson chose Pruitt to replace retired Chief Al Compaan, picking him over longtime Edmonds officer and interim Chief Jim Lawless.

Pruitt, then the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe’s police chief, passed an initial background check and other screenings required of applicants. However, the suit alleges the city ran Pruitt through additional screenings, “holding him at a higher standard” than the other candidate, who is white. Pruitt identifies as Black, Filipino and Native American.

Olson launched an “unparalleled investigation of Chief Pruitt’s background,” a move the suit alleges was motivated by race.

“The Police Chief role is one of utmost responsibility and trust,” Olson wrote in a statement to The Daily Herald. “I made the best decision for the City based on the evidence I had. Race wasn’t a factor in my decision.”

The city learned Pruitt had been asked to resign from Seattle’s police academy in 2004, when he acknowledged he was investigated for a previous domestic violence incident. He confirmed there was a warrant for his arrest at the time, as a result of that investigation.

Pruitt’s first wife had filed a protection order against him, according to a transcript of a lawsuit filed by Pruitt and his wife against the city of Arlington in 2007. The Edmonds police policy manual says a candidate is disqualified from joining the force if they admitted to any act of domestic violence. It’s unspecified if that includes a guilty plea in court.

Olson “falsely accused Chief Pruitt of domestic violence, even though Chief Pruitt is a loving husband of 25 years, father, and grandfather who has never committed domestic violence,” the lawsuit states.

Meanwhile, Edmonds city leaders fixated on race during the application process, according to Pruitt’s claim. The mayor allegedly asked Pruitt questions like, “What are you going to do about the Blacks around here?” and “How are you going to handle the Blacks?”

The lawsuit — peppered with portraits of Pruitt’s family and images of his accolades — states the defendants used “falsifications and racist dog whistles” to frame Pruitt as a caricature of an “angry, violent and dishonest Black man.” The suit said Nelson “succumbed” to pressure from Olson by rescinding the job offer.

Pruitt is seeking lost wages, back pay and the financial equivalent of any benefits he would have received as chief. He’s also asking for compensation for emotional harm and legal fees.

“It has taken (Pruitt) years to recover,” the suit reads. “He is still not whole.”

In a 2020 letter to Pruitt, Nelson said he had to reverse the job offer because Pruitt did not disclose a job application for a similar position in Lake Stevens.

“After completion of a background check there, you were not offered the position,” Nelson said.

At the time, Human Resources Director Jessica Neill Hoyson said Pruitt told her he forgot about the application.

However, in the suit, Pruitt asserted no such application existed. Lake Stevens had no record of his job application when he made a public records request in early 2021, according to the suit.

The city plans to defend its reversal of the job offer.

“While we cannot comment on litigation, we can say we stand behind our decision to withdraw Sherman Pruitt’s conditional offer for the position of Chief of Police based on his omission of critical information from his personal history statement,” city spokesperson Kelsey Foster said in an email. “The City looks forward to presenting all the facts in court.”

The city had not responded to Pruitt’s lawsuit in court as of Friday. Pruitt had filed a notice of his intent to sue last year.

The mayor’s decision to hire Pruitt caused friction in the city. Lawless had served over 25 years in the city, and some saw him as the more qualified candidate, including the previous chief, Compaan.

The council voted 4-3 to appoint him, with Olson among those voting no. A week later, the mayor withdrew the job offer.

Pruitt has been in law enforcement for 14 years. He served in the U.S. Marines and the Washington Air National Guard. He still serves as chief of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribal Police Department.

In March 2021, the city hired Michelle Bennett as interim chief.

Lawless resigned around the same time, to join the Marysville Police Department.

Bennett took the permanent job later in 2021.

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