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Tacoma mayor wants officers in Manuel Ellis case fired, City Council asks for state review

Protesters gather outside the County-City Building in Tacoma on Friday, demanding justice for Manuel Ellis, who was killed while in police custody March 3. His death was ruled a homicide, according to a report made public this week.
Parker Miles Blohm
Protesters gather outside the County-City Building in Tacoma on Friday, demanding justice for Manuel Ellis, who was killed while in police custody March 3. His death was ruled a homicide, according to a report made public this week.

The family of Manuel Ellis spoke, and the Tacoma City Council listened. 

The council unanimously voted Friday to submit a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, calling for a state-sanctioned independent review of Ellis’ death. Ellis died March 3 in police custody. His death was ruled a homicide, in a medical examiner’s report made public this week. The cause was lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. 

The case is being reviewed by an outside agency, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, but the family says that investigation is not independent enough. Tacoma Council members agreed.

“While this matter is still under investigation, these findings are extremely distressing and present many critical questions that demand answers,” the letter, approved in a 9-0 vote, states. “We cannot imagine the grief and hardship that it has caused for (Ellis’) friends and family.”

Pierce County has said the sheriff’s office can’t comment on its ongoing investigation. Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer has told The News Tribune that Ellis attacked the officers the night of March 3. 

“He never tried to run, he engaged with the officers and started a fight,” Troyer told the newspaper. Tacoma Police Department said its cooperating with the independent investigation and county prosecutors.

Late Friday, Inslee announced he was committed to a state review of the independent investigation. 

"I’ve been told the Pierce County Sheriff is close to completing the investigation his agency is doing on behalf of the city,” Inslee said in a statement. “That report will be forwarded to the county prosecutor, who makes the decision whether to charge the officers involved. We have no reason to doubt the work underway, and my decision does not in any way pre-judge an outcome, but the family of Mr. Ellis, the City of Tacoma and every Washington resident deserves the confidence that an extra level of scrutiny will bring."

Marcia Carter, Ellis’ mother, stood on the sidewalk outside the County-City Building in Tacoma on Thursday, urging elected leaders to hold Tacoma police officers accountable for killing her son. 

Carter’s cries prompted a passionate, late-night video statement from Mayor Victoria Woodards, who called for the city manager to fire the four officers involved. The officers were placed on administrative leave this week, after the medical examiner’s report from May 11 became public.

“The officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Woodards said, hours after new videos emerged on social media that the family's lawyer says depicts the officers' encounter with Ellis. They show what appears to be officers kicking and punching Ellis on the ground. Organizers who have rallied around Ellis’ family say the videos contradict police accounts of what happened that night. 

The officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

“As an African-American woman, I didn't need a video to believe,” Woodards added. “Yesterday, I committed to action. Tonight, I am stepping up again to show that commitment.”

Tacoma City Manager Elizabeth Pauli released a statement in response, stating she supports the mayor’s “endorsement of the Ellis family’s demand for more information and for action.” She did not say she would follow through with terminating the officers in question.

“The Mayor is doing her job. I am prepared to do mine to the best of my ability,” Pauli wrote. “I look forward to receiving additional information from the Sheriff about this tragic event. I will act quickly in reviewing any and all information provided and in making decisions necessary to hold individuals accountable for their actions.”

Pauli added that she’ll work closely with the Tacoma City Council on necessary reforms, which echoes Woodards’ demand for funding body cams for officers. 

Tacoma’s police union also responded to the mayor’s remarks, stressing the need for due process for their officers and calling Woodards’ statement “theatrical.” 

“Without any facts, without any investigation, without due process, and with less than a minute of short, blurry, partial Twitter videos in hand, the Mayor passed judgment on the actions of four Tacoma Police Officers,” according to the statement from Tacoma Police Union Local No. 6. “She called them criminals. She called for their prosecution. She called for their termination from employment. And she called for all of these things without an ounce of evidence to support her words beyond misplaced rage.” 

Ellis’ family told reporters Thursday that they believe the evidence is clear. They also accused the Tacoma Police Department of evasion and providing “multiple, different stories.” Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, stressed that the medical examiner’s report confirmed that her brother died at the hands of another person. 

“All those findings were physical findings, which they had on March 3 when they had my brother’s body,” she said.

Gerald Hankerson, president of the regional conference of the NAACP, said due process should come in the form of the courts. 

Let the court handle it. Let the jury decide.

“The medical examiner already called it a homicide,” Hankerson said during the family’s news conference Thursday. “If that would have happened to anybody in the community, we would already be in cuffs. Let the court handle it. Let the jury decide.” 

It will be up to Pierce County prosecutors to determine if the killing was justified. And now, Tacoma leaders say intervention from the state is the best way to ensure justice in the case. 

Council member Lillian Hunter said the state's review will help seek the best information and, ultimately, justice. 

“We can only make good decisions based on the information that we have,” Hunter said. “And it’s very clear to us that we need more information.” 

Council member Robert Thoms said this action is bigger than one case and the City of Tacoma. 

“This is just the beginning of a long fight and path toward the type of reforms we need to have in order to restore faith and trust in government,” Thoms said. “And nothing’s more important than making sure that you feel like you’re safe in your own home, in your own community, in your own skin.”

Inslee said Friday that he spoke with Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste and Attorney General Bob Ferguson. The patrol will review the sheriff’s investigation “to ensure that a full and fair investigation has been concluded.”

After the prosecutor’s work is complete, the attorney general’s office will review it and determine whether any different charging decisions need to be made.

"We know that Manuel Ellis was one of far, far too many Black men who died while in police custody in America, including here in Washington state,” Inslee said. “Washingtonians deserve every assurance that investigations and charging decisions related to police shootings and deaths of people in police custody are handled with urgency, independence and commitment to justice.”

In a statement late Friday, Woodards expressed gratitude for the governor’s decision to allow state officials to assist in the case. She held a news conference immediately following the announcement, during which she reiterated her belief that the officers should be fired, based on the information that’s currently public.

Woodards urged the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department to move swiftly in its investigation, considering all evidence, including the videos recently made public.

“I am committed to due process. I am committed to holding people accountable for their actions,” Woodards said. “And I am committed to comprehensive criminal justice reform, because that’s the only way we make systemic change.”

Woodards said she didn’t regret her remarks from the night before, and stood by the emotion with which she delivered them. Still, she wanted to make her message abundantly clear.

“Right now, all of my energy and focus is on the death of Manuel Ellis, the investigation into his death and making sure we act on the results of that investigation in the fairest, most transparent way possible,” Woodards said. “I want justice for everyone involved, and I’m keeping my eyes on that prize.”

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.