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Manuel Ellis' death looms large at Tacoma bill signings even without his family there

A mural honoring Manuel Ellis and calling for justice in his death fills a wall in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood.
Kari Plog
A mural honoring Manuel Ellis and calling for justice in his death fills a wall in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood.

Gov. Jay Inslee traveled to Tacoma on Tuesday to sign a suite of police accountability measures that were passed by the Legislature earlier this year. 

The bill signing happened at the Eastside Community Center, just five miles from the intersection where Manuel Ellis was killed by Tacoma police last year.

All of the speakers, including state lawmakers and Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, acknowledged the historic nature of the measures — a dozen in total — that aim to address systemic racism in policing.   

“These bills are all going to work in coordination with one another to create a system of accountability and integrity stronger than anywhere else in the nation,” Inslee said in his opening remarks. 

While some leaders pointed to Ellis’ death as an example of the need for greater accountability when police use deadly force, his family wasn’t there Tuesday to speak to their experience directly. 

“Manuel Ellis’ name was brought up several times in the course of the event. However, how is the family actually engaged in this process?” Christopher Paul Jordan told KNKX Public Radio.

Jordan is an organizer with Tacoma Action Collective, the group that has joined Ellis’ family in calls for justice. He also served on a state task force that, in part, led to House Bill 1267, which created a new independent office to investigate police deadly force cases.   

“It feels like attention is being turned away from actually focusing on what’s happening here and now,” Jordan added. 

Ellis’ death added momentum to a wave of criminal justice actions taken in Olympia in the past year, including the bills signed Tuesday. It prompted the state Attorney General’s Office to review dozens of deadly force cases across the state.  

Inslee was among the many leaders who acknowledged the pain shouldered by families who experience loss at the hands of police, and thanked them for turning their pain into purpose. 

“Our moral mandate to acknowledge these hard truths has been crystalized, unfortunately, by the multiple tragedies of interaction between police leading to deaths of citizens,” Inslee said. 

The governor said the new measures, together, make up the most comprehensive, transparent and effective police accountability laws in the nation. But he and others said Tuesday that it’s not enough. 

Jordan underscored that point, stressing the need for independent prosecutions to supplement the independent investigations bill that was signed into law as part of the sweeping reform. 

“What I think is missing right now is a true understanding of justice,” Jordan told KNKX. “Justice is not about just making it a little bit more difficult for your murderers to murder someone else. Justice is about preventing the violence, addressing the harm, making amends, having accountability, abolishing the system of violence that precipitated that harm.” 

Jordan added that he’s disappointed that Ellis’ family hasn’t been adequately involved in the process. He said it’s among the many reminders that there is still more work to do.

“And really talking about how do we secure justice for families here in Tacoma, because the work is really here for us, right now,” he said. 

In a tweet Thursday, Ellis' sister Monét Carter-Mixon said her family was not invited or notified about Tuesday's bill signing. She said if there were actual efforts toward police accountability, "my brother would still be here." 

A spokesman with the governor's office told KNKX that an unnamed state official initially sent an email to Carter-Mixon asking if the family would be interested in attending, but never received a response. He said the governor's office, therefore, didn't extend a formal invitation to Tuesday's event. 

Carter-Mixon told KNKX she didn't initially see the email. She said that same official, and many others who were at Tuesday's event, knew how to reach her if they wanted the family there. 

The state investigation into the death of Ellis was handed over to Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office in November. A decision is expected later this month on whether the officers involved will face criminal charges.

UPDATE, Friday 10 a.m.: Adds information about the absence of Manuel Ellis' family at Tuesday's event. 

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.