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State patrol hands over Manuel Ellis investigation to attorney general for charging decision

The Washington State Patrol has finished its investigation into the killing of Manuel Ellis, who died in March while being restrained by Tacoma police officers.

Gov. Jay Inslee assigned the case to a special investigative team back in June. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department initially led the investigation, until it became public that a deputy from the agency had responded to the scene where Ellis died on March 3.

That deputy had “participated in restraining” Ellis, Inslee said at the time, amounting to “an incurable conflict.”

In a release Friday, the Washington State Patrol said it has forwarded the case to the Attorney General’s Office, which will review the findings and determine what course of action will be taken, including whether the officers involved will face criminal charges.

Ellis’ death was ruled a homicide by the Pierce County medical examiner. A copy of the report obtained by KNKX Public Radio shows the South Tacoma man died due to a lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. Methamphetamine and a dilated heart were listed as contributing factors.

The four Tacoma police officers involved remain on paid administrative leave. 

In a statement Friday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said his office has appointed an internal review team to assist in “this important decision.” That team includes prosecutors, a representative from the office’s Civil Rights Division, and two retired judges.

“My office is in the process of reaching out directly to the Ellis family to schedule a meeting,” Ferguson said in his statement.

In a statement released late Friday, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said the city will begin its own “independent administrative review processes” after the Attorney General’s Office completes its review and releases records.

“With any outcome, the City Council and I will support our City Manager and her staff’s effort to access case records, review the facts, determine if this case involved violations of our policing procedures and policies, and take any necessary action,” Woodards said in the statement.

It's unclear how long it will take for Ferguson's office to review the case and reach a charging decision. 

“The law imposes no deadline or timeline for this review," he said in his statement. "We will keep the public informed through appropriate updates.”

Activists and supporters of Ellis' family, who is suing the City of Tacoma, have criticized the pace of the investigation as several videos of the incident have circulated publicly in the months since his death. One shows Ellis saying "I can't breathe, sir" while being restrained by officers. Another appears to show a Tacoma police officer wrapping his arm around Ellis' neck and then pressing a knee into Ellis' body.

Ellis' death ignited protests in Washington state, in conjunction with similar protests for racial justice throughout the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Ellis' name has become a local symbol for police reform, and even prompted a statewide review of use-of-force cases.

In the months since Ellis' death, supporters have celebrated his life in community. A mural was created in his honor in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood, as part of a posthumous birthday celebration. And friends and family gathered in June for a Father's Day balloon release; Ellis is survived by two children. 

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.