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State patrol will investigate Manuel Ellis' death, governor says

Manuel Ellis
Courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective
Manuel Ellis

The Washington State Patrol will take over an investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who was killed in Tacoma police custody in March after telling an officer, "I can't breathe, sir."

Gov. Jay Inslee made the announcement in a written statement Wednesday afternoon.

The state patrol takes over a three-month probe started by the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, which had been investigating the death until it emerged that a sheriff's deputy had been at the scene. 

Inslee said the sheriff learned the deputy "participated in restraining" Ellis, which Inslee called "an incurable conflict." 

Inslee said a state trooper also was "briefly" at the scene while Ellis was handcuffed. "His activities were limited and the patrol will exclude him and others from the area from any part of the investigation," the governor said.

The state patrol will pass its findings on to the attorney general, who will decide whether any of the four Tacoma police officers who were at the scene, or anyone else, should face criminal charges, Inslee said.

"This is the best way to give the Ellis family and the entire community the thorough, fair and independent investigation this case demands," Inslee said.

Ellis, 33, died the night of March 3 after police officers handcuffed him on a residential street following a confrontation. Videos taken by witnesses and a security camera showed officers punching Ellis, using a Taser on him, wrapping an arm around his neck from behind, and pressing a knee into his body once he was on the ground. He was unarmed.

The Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis' death a homicide, attributing it to a lack of oxygen "as a result of physical restraint, positioning" and the placement of a "spit hood" over his mouth. The medical examiner also said methamphetamine in Ellis' system contributed to his death. 

Inslee's decision to hand the investigation to the state patrol fulfills a demand from Ellis' family and their supporters, who argued the sheriff's department was too close to the Tacoma police to investigate the incident fairly.

Ellis' name has been chanted at rallies in Tacoma and Seattle alongside George Floyd's in recent weeks, as an example of the disproportionate number of Black people killed by police. 

Inslee also said it appeared the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, while they investigated the case, did not follow the requirements of I-940, the 2018 initiative meant to strengthen accountability for police officers who use deadly force. 

The governor said the sheriff's department did not appoint community members to play a role in reviewing members of an independent investigative team. He also said no family liaison was appointed.

"Our announcement today focuses on thoroughly investigating what happened late at night on March 3," Inslee said in the statement. "But I believe the sheriff’s office needs to answer serious questions about what happened, and did not happen, in the months since then."

A sheriff's department spokesman did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Activists with the group Tacoma Action Collective, who have been supporting Ellis' family and calling for justice for Ellis, responded to Inslee's announcement Wednesday with a series of questions about the sheriff's department's apparent failures to follow I-940.

"We are expected to have faith in a system that has no accountability," the group posted on Twitter. "We are expected to have faith in a system where a man is killed on the street and then his character is attacked before his murder is investigated."

Members of the group also questioned why the four Tacoma police officers were allowed to return to work, after an initial period of administrative leave, while the sheriff's department was conducting its investigation. Police officials returned the officers to administrative leave after the case started getting more attention in May. 

Inslee said state patrol chief John Batiste would start collecting records from the sheriff's office "immediately" and begin forming an investigative team, the members of which will be made public. The probe is expected to begin by the end of next week, Inslee said.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.