LISTEN: A detailed look at the death of Manuel Ellis, and a life tangled up in powerful forces
More than six months have passed since 33-year-old Manuel Ellis was killed by Tacoma police on a residential street in March. He died after telling officers he couldn't breathe. The medical examiner ruled it a homicide.
Since then, Ellis' death has sparked protests, vigils, efforts to reform statewide police-accountability laws, and legal action against the City of Tacoma. Meanwhile, the state patrol is investigating whether any of the four Tacoma officers who were at the scene should be charged with crimes. Ellis became a local example of the inequities people around the country were protesting after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.
But as impactful as Ellis' death has been, his life is just as instructive. It's a complex story that encompasses childhood trauma, mental illness, substance use, and how Black people are policed.
Seattle Times investigative reporter Patrick Malone spent months piecing together a narrative of Ellis' life and death, using public records and interviews with family members, Ellis' landlords at a sober-living home, and others.
Malone's two-part series was published this week. It covers disparities in law enforcement's initial accounts of the circumstances of Ellis' death and outlines what Malone calls conflicts of interest between the Tacoma police and the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, the agency initially tasked with investigating the killing.
The stories also explore Pierce County's struggles to address a high rate of behavioral health problems, and recount Ellis' difficulties finding treatment while he was entangled in the criminal justice system.
"This is almost like many parallel stories at once," Malone said. "It's how a family was torn apart by a very unexpected circumstance. It's how a police department and adjacent police departments treat each other when the crosshairs are on each other. It's how a community responds."
Malone talked to KNKX's Will James about his reporting on Ellis. You can listen to that conversation above.
Witnesses contradicted law enforcement accounts: “Eyewitnesses and their videos came out and they contradict the officers completely. These two witnesses who were driving in two different directions filmed this encounter and their descriptions match up perfectly. And they both say they saw a patrol car pull up close next to Ellis as he was walking away, just walking down the street. They didn't see anything. Could it be that they missed something? We don't know. And the passenger door flings open, knocks Ellis to the ground.
This video shows the passenger-side officer grabbing Ellis in a chokehold from behind to bring him down while the driver points a Taser at him. And Ellis raises his, hands apparently in submission, and gets zapped with the Taser. The struggle moves to the ground where the officer who was on the passenger side moves his left knee onto the upper back or back of Ellis' neck, which is another contradiction to the law enforcement account.”
Ellis had frequent interactions with police long before his death: “There have been times in Mr. Ellis' life where his mental illness has gotten the better of him. You know, he was reluctant to seek help. He didn't know what his problem was. And his sister tells us that by the time he did recognize this, he had an addiction to deal with and it was very hard for him.
So we look back to maybe the 2015, 2016 timeframe when he was really ripping and roaring on drugs. And we see the types of offenses that people on drugs commit. You know, identity theft, ways to get money that would be able to support his habit. But there were often times that he was encountered by police, even ticketed or arrested, that resulted in no conviction. You know, we bounced it off a sociologist at the University of Washington who says these are the stereotypical interactions of a poor Black man, especially one with mental illness, with police.”
Malone on the impacts of Ellis' death: “This is the kind of thing that, if it happened five years ago, if it happened 10 years ago, it wouldn't be getting the same kind of attention. I think this story and the last three months have taught me about a sea change in the way that the media looks at deaths in custody and the way that police themselves look at deaths in custody. What the answers are, we don't know. It's going to be something that lives on way beyond a charging decision in this case, because it's going to affect decisions of the Legislature, local decisions about investments in mental health. I mean, it just begs a lot of questions about how well we're taking care of each other.”