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'They all back the blue.' Peace evades Manuel Ellis' sister despite cops being charged

Editor’s note: This story was produced in partnership with The Seattle Times. Read an in-depth investigation into the law enforcement response to the charging decision from investigative reporter Patrick Malone.  

The day the state attorney general charged three Tacoma police officers with felonies in the killing of Manuel Ellis, nearly a third of Tacoma’s police force didn’t show up to work. 

Absentee data obtained by The Seattle Times and shared with KNKX Public Radio show 105 absences within the Tacoma Police Department on May 27, the day the charging decision was announced. That’s 30 percent more absences than any other Thursday in April or May, records show.

“In that community they all back each other,” Monét Carter-Mixon, Ellis’ sister, told KNKX. “They all back the blue.”  

Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, was killed in March 2020 during an encounter with the officers, during which he repeatedly told them “I can’t breathe, sir.” The Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide due to physical restraint. Charging documents from the attorney general’s office said the officers involved used force “without justification.”  

Officers Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank have pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter charges. Officer Timothy Rankine also pleaded not guilty to first-degree manslaughter.

All three of them remain employed by the Tacoma Police Department, pending an internal investigation. In total, five officers involved are on paid administrative leave. The city said in a release that internal affairs investigators were expecting to interview the officers last week.  

The three officers who were charged were released on bail immediately following their arraignment, with the help of Josh Harris, the owner of a local construction company. Harris paid $30,000 to a bail bondsman, who posted $300,000 for their release. His ties to a local chaplaincy group, initially revealed by the activist group Tacoma Action Collective, led the city to terminate a contract with that group.    

Harris’ company, Integrity Construction, received a number of positive and negative online reviews in response to his support of the officers. One of the comments attracted the attention of Carter-Mixon and the state’s key witness in the Ellis case, Sarah McDowell. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers #backtheblue,” wrote Bridgette Lopez, a campus security officer at Stadium High School in Tacoma.

Dozens of people, including McDowell and Carter-Mixon, publicly criticized the comment. But when Lopez filed a protection order claiming harassment as a result of the social media posts, only McDowell and Carter-Mixon were served. 

A judge dismissed the protection order during a hearing June 23, ruling there was no evidence to support Lopez’s claims of harassment and stressing that the social media comments were protected speech under the First Amendment. 

Carter-Mixon says she believes the legal dispute was another attempt at intimidating her for speaking out against the officers who killed her brother.

“Our state’s government has determined that what they did was unjust and unlawful,” Carter-Mixon told KNKX. “So why are you still saying they were just doing their job? Why are you condoning that behavior, when someone lost their life?”

In the days that followed the charging decision, Carter-Mixon said she experienced verbal harassment from someone in her neighborhood. Shortly after, she says, her car was vandalized. She believes she’s being followed, even now more than two months later. 

Carter-Mixon believes all of it is related to how vocal she’s been about her brother’s case. 

“I’m checking my car before I actually get into it. Basically having to have a bunch of safety precautions I wasn’t having to do before,” Carter-Mixon said. “Now people are desperate. They (the officers) are facing serious charges. But I just feel like they want to intimidate me to make me maybe be more fearful about speaking out or saying things. I hope they know that I’m not going to stop.” 

Carter-Mixon also says she’s having serious conversations with her kids as the family prepares for what’s sure to be a high-profile murder trial. The three officers charged with killing Ellis match the statewide total from the previous 40 years in Washington state. 

Carter-Mixon’s oldest son worries about police officers coming into their home and harming her. She admits that sounds extreme, but for her family it’s not hyperbole. They don’t trust law enforcement to protect them while the case plays out in court.

Our state's government has determined that what they did was unjust and unlawful. So why are you still saying they were just doing their job? Why are you condoning that behavior, when someone lost their life?

Carter-Mixon says she feels like there is greater consideration for the safety of the officers who are charged with killing her brother. “There was no consideration for us at all,” she said.

Despite her worries, Carter-Mixon says she’s trying to take it easy. She is in the third trimester of a high-risk pregnancy. “I’m trying not to take on as much because I don’t want to give birth to an unhealthy baby,” she said. 

Carter-Mixon says she is finding joy in the happy memories of her brother, laughing a lot about how Ellis lived and blocking out the images of how he died. Those happy memories will live on in her son, who she is naming Manuel, after her brother. 

“I feel like maybe he was brought to me, or given to me by my brother, to keep him around or keep him with me,” she said. “I have a little piece of him. All my kids are special, but he’s a little bit more special.”