Episode 7: Pierce County, USA
A community grapples with the fallout from Manny's case — and the movement that surrounds it.
The 2020 police killing of Manuel "Manny" Ellis, a Black man in Tacoma, brought a reckoning to Washington State and has set up what promises to be one of the highest-profile trials in Pacific Northwest history.
The story unfolds in The Walk Home, a podcast byKNKX Public Radio andThe Seattle Times, with support fromNPR. It's sponsored byMovetoTacoma.com, theGreater Tacoma Community Foundation and Group Health Foundation.
Find more information atthewalkhomepodcast.org.
Links to source materials
Dive deeper into this story and our reporting:
- The Seattle Times' reporting on the fallout from the decision to charge officers in Manny Ellis' death, by Patrick Malone
- The Seattle Times story that broke the news that Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer called 911 on a Black newspaper carrier, Sedrick Altheimer
- KNKX's reporting on past internal affairs investigations into Troyer's conduct, by Kari Plog
- KNKX's reporting on the fallout from Troyer's criminal charges, by Kari Plog
- The Seattle Times' reporting on Josh Harris' criminal record, by Patrick Malone
- Stories by The Seattle Times and KNKX about Josh Harris shooting a man and the decision not to charge him, by Patrick Malone, Kari Plog, Will James, and the Associated Press
- Pew Research Center analysis on crime rates leading up to the 2022 midterm election
Note: The Walk Home was produced as an audio series. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the series. This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.
Episode 7: "Pierce County, USA"
Mayowa Aina: This podcast includes descriptions of violence and death. Please take care while listening.
Mayowa Aina: “Alright, we’re rolling.”
Kari Plog: “Alright.”
Mayowa Aina: “So what the fuck happened?”
Kari Plog: “‘What the fuck happened’ is right.”
Kari Plog: I’m in the parking lot of a place called the Tacoma Sportsmen's Club, in rural Pierce County. It’s about 10 miles from the southern border of Tacoma, where Manny Ellis was killed. People around me are shooting at the gun range and doing archery. I’m sitting in my car, talking to my colleague, Mayowa Aina, trying to process what just happened.
Kari Plog: “Like, I like to think that I have a pretty thick skin. I’ve covered some stuff that’s uncomfortable. But this? I had a very overwhelming urge that, like, this doesn’t feel safe and I need to leave.”
Kari Plog: I came to this event to hear from a person who’s been in the background of this entire series from the very beginning: Ed Troyer.
Monèt Carter-Mixon, from Episode 1: “As the officers exited their vehicle, they were immediately attacked by the man, sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said.”
Kari Plog: Troyer has been the face of law enforcement in Pierce County for a long time. I’ve talked to him a lot over the years. His job was dealing with the media. When a high-profile crime happened, he was the one we would call or text to get the details in time to hit our deadlines. The same was true on March 3, 2020. Troyer was the first one to tell a reporter what police said happened to Manny that night — that he probably died from excited delirium after attacking officers. Later, when people were marching over George Floyd’s death and Manny’s story went viral, Troyer was on TV, trying to control the story.
Archival clip of TV news story: “Although autopsies show similarities, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department says Ellis’ death is different than George Floyd’s.”
Ed Troyer: “There was no heads on knees, no cutting off of circulation, none of that.”
Kari Plog: At the same time, Ed Troyer was in the middle of a campaign. He was running to be Pierce County’s next sheriff. And he won, in a landslide.
Archival clip of TV news story: “The clear winner tonight is going to be Ed Troyer, longtime department spokesperson.”
Ed Troyer: “I can’t wait to get together with everybody and move the department forward, look at what’s going on with today’s issues.”
Kari Plog: A lot has changed since Manny was killed. Washington’s governor signed new laws putting stricter limits on how police do their jobs. Some of the people who advocated for them cited Manny’s case as a motivation. Then there’s the backlash.
Kari Plog: “I have a flier that um let me read it, that was listed in the invite. ‘Crime rates have been rising in Pierce County and around the state. Legislation has impacted how our law enforcement can respond to crimes. All law abiding firearm owners need to be prepared that they may be a victim of crime, understand laws and how they affect you.’”
Kari Plog: Since becoming the top law-enforcement officer, Troyer has become one of the loudest voices crusading against the police reforms that grew out of the racial justice movement in 2020. That’s why I came to this event where Sheriff Troyer is speaking – to talk to him about all of this, and to talk to the people who came to listen — people who make up the pool of potential jurors when officers Burbank, Collins, and Rankine go to trial. But I was forced to leave before I could talk to anyone about any of that.
Kari Plog: “The woman in charge of the event, she immediately said I have some ground rules. After she said, ‘OK, just so you know this is a private event, press is not allowed. And if we find out you’re here we will escort you out as proud members of the Second Amendment community’ or something like that. It was very intimidating. I think for me it was the very overt, like, you better not be a reporter and if we find out you’re a reporter you’re going to be sorry. But my thing is, if this is public information, what are they hiding? Why don’t they want a broader audience to know?”
Kari Plog: From KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times, this is The Walk Home. Episode 7: Pierce County USA. The criminal charges against the Tacoma officers sent a shock wave through Pierce County. Local law enforcement and their supporters responded like it was a direct attack. The day the attorney general announced the charges, nearly a third of Tacoma’s police force didn’t show up to work. Reporting from the Seattle Times shows those absences were much higher than what was typical. The day the officers were arraigned, Sheriff Troyer posted a snarky comic on Facebook. It was a play on Jeopardy, only the big block letters read “Facts don’t matter!” That weekend, Monet says, she went out to her driveway to find the back tires on her car flattened and the brakes damaged. Her home started to feel uncomfortable, unsafe, for her family. So, she moved them into a hotel. They stayed there for a month. After the officers appeared in court remotely, someone who had been at the courthouse for the hearings immediately posted the $30,000 needed to bail them out.
Josh Harris: “I'm just going to tell my foreman here that…”
Kari Plog: His name is Josh Harris. He owns a construction company in Tacoma.
Josh Harris: “There's two joists for the second story that were cut a little short. We just need to put blocking in between them.”
Kari Plog: I think getting to know Josh Harris can help us understand this place a little better and the moment we’re living through right now. Josh and Sheriff Troyer, they’re friends. Josh has served on the board for Crimestoppers, a nonprofit arm of local law enforcement. He’s been a volunteer firefighter. And his brother is a chaplain for Tacoma police. Before, it was like Harris was always just kind of there, blending into the background of law enforcement circles. That changed when Harris bailed out those officers. He went from being this spectator, watching a polarizing debate about policing, to forcing himself right into the middle of it.
Josh Harris: “We had probably, I don't know, 50, 60 people over the course of two weeks hang up, you know, just call and hang up or yell, you know, ‘You cop killing loving, you know, blah, blah, blah.’ Probably about 20, 30 negative emails that came in. But the majority of it, honestly, it was overwhelming with the amount of support that came in.
Kari Plog: Right after bailing out the officers, Josh thrust himself into the public’s eye even more. He launched a political campaign for Pierce County Council. His platform was all about cracking down on crime, homelessness, drugs. He was considered the law-and-order candidate. The Tacoma police union endorsed him. His talking points appealed to a lot of people. Crime is rising right now. In Tacoma, city leaders have reported that violent street crime spiked in just a year’s time. Homicides are the highest they’ve been since 1994, at the height of the city’s gang violence. The rising crime here is part of a nationwide trend that started in 2020. But it's not as simple as “Police reform happened, crime rose.” Crime got worse in more progressive states that did pass reforms, but also in more conservative states that didn’t pass them. The cause could end up being a complicated mess of factors, including the economic and social upheaval of the pandemic. But that hasn't stopped people from trying to blame the reforms.
Josh Harris: “How bad do we have to get? I feel like we're living in Gotham City pretty much. You know, I mean, really, it's becoming a reality here for Tacoma and Pierce County.”
Kari Plog: During his campaign, Josh got a lot of attention for something you probably wouldn’t expect from a politician.
Tape of gunshots from police body camera footage.
Kari Plog: Those were gunshots and the sound of police officers running toward the scene of the shooting. The person who fired that gun was Josh Harris. He went to an encampment where homeless people live in the woods, looking for items he says were stolen. He says he found them and called police. After they got there, a man living in those woods drove toward Josh in a stolen vehicle. Josh fired multiple shots, putting that man in the hospital.
Tape from police body camera footage: “He’s been shot.”
Kari Plog: Prosecutors determined Josh fired in self-defense and he wasn't charged with any crimes. The man Josh shot was charged with assault. This isn't the only story Josh has like this.
Josh Harris: “I was unfortunate, when I was 20, I was shot trying to protect people. I ended up taking the bullet the bullet. And luckily, I survived.”
Josh Harris: “I've had a guy in a stolen U-Haul about three or four years ago tying to run us down on a jobsite and I shot at the engine and the tire.”
Josh Harris: “I just went to the bank yesterday, ended up following a guy through the parking lot because he tried to get in the bus that was locked next to the Key Bank, watched him flipping handles on other cars and looking into them.”
Josh Harris: “I call 911, I know no one's coming.”
Kari Plog: He's talked a lot about how the world is getting more chaotic, how misguided reforms and anti-police politics have gone too far. He says we've tied the hands of law enforcement. I wanted to get to know Josh because as the energy around the 2020 protests has faded away, his worldview has not only persisted. It's gotten louder. The first time I met Josh Harris, he didn’t really feel like a stranger. I know a lot of people like him, who think like him. I grew up in Pierce County. That gun club, where Troyer was speaking, it’s just 5 or 10 minutes from my childhood home. I have friends and family who have gone shooting at the range there. This place can be a little rough around the edges. Driving down main roads, you’ll see housing developments stacked on top of each other, right next to stripmalls, right next to trailer parks. Maybe you’ve seen some of these main roads before, if the show “COPS” was appointment TV for you back in the day. Pierce County was featured all the time. The “Bad Boys” theme song unlocks core memories of me and my friends trying to spot street signs we recognized during those high-speed pursuits. There wasn’t always a whole lot to do, unless you were willing to drive a little outside town. So, kids from my high school would loiter in grocery store parking lots, blasting music from their crappy speakers – usually country or what I think is now called “dad rock.” Nowadays, it’s pretty typical to see people driving trucks covered in mud, flying flags from their tailgates: American flags, flags that say “Make America Great Again” or “Don’t Tread on Me.” And flags with the thin blue line, a display of unequivocal support for law enforcement. And even though it’s home to Tacoma — one of the Blackest cities in Washington state – Pierce County is 73 percent white. While people were marching in the streets of Tacoma for Manny Ellis and George Floyd, this Pierce County was still here. While state lawmakers were passing police reforms, this Pierce County was still here. While three officers were being arrested and charged for killing Manny Ellis, this Pierce County was still here. Manny’s family and their supporters saw the reforms of 2020 as a correction — police finally being held accountable for their actions. But this whole other Pierce County has been there all along. And to, people there, the system worked before, and all these changes aren’t a correction; They’re a disruption.
Josh Harris: "Washington state is a great community and we've just gone off the rails. Look at what's happened in the last two years, I'm not saying that some things haven’t needed to change, some of these things are good. There’s some things embedded in it. But these big, big pieces that have just hammered on it — we can literally look and direct like car theft, violent crime, we need to address it and get it fixed so we can all live in this community and live safely.”
Kari Plog: When Josh Harris heard that those three officers were getting arrested, he saw it as part of that disruption.
Josh Harris: “From what I've seen, this has been grossly exaggerated in the wrong direction and politically motivated. Nobody even knew who Manny Ellis was until a few months after George Floyd and then this flared up, right? So let's look at the real agenda here. I saw two investigations done. And after the first investigation was done, I had asked, ‘Why are we spending money for another investigation?’ How many investigations are we going to have until someone's agenda’s met and they're happy?”
Kari Plog: When Josh looks at Manny’s case, he’s suspicious of the story from witnesses and prosecutors. He believes the officers when they say Manny attacked them. Josh also believes the medical examiner got it wrong by saying Manny’s death was a homicide. He insisted over and over in our interviews that he believes Manny died of a meth overdose. He thinks a jury of his peers will believe that, too.
Jesse Johnson: “I think I led every single speech I did that year, which was probably a hundred, with, ‘Without the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Manny Ellis, we would not be here.’”
Kari Plog: We will eventually get back to Sheriff Troyer and the event he spoke at earlier this year. But first, we need to explain what sparked all the backlash in the first place. Jesse Johnson is a Democratic representative in the Washington State House. He was new to the Legislature in 2020.
Jesse Johnson: “Just like everyone else, especially the Black community, that summer, I was outraged about what I saw with George Floyd. And not only George Floyd — Breonna Taylor locally with Manny Ellis and so many others. Finally the candle was burning and we just needed someone to step up and address it.”
Kari Plog: As soon as Manny’s story went viral, it rippled through powerful corners of Washington state. In the state capital, just south of Pierce County, people in power started listening to Manny’s family and their supporters who had been demanding oversight for police. Remember how the Pierce County sheriff’s deputies didn’t follow the law when they first investigated Manny’s death? The state attorney general decided to look into 18 other cases of police killing or wounding people to see how those investigations went. His office found that only five investigations fully followed the law, though most departments made an effort and got close. The attorney general asked state lawmakers to require the state to keep a database of police use-of-force cases and it passed, overwhelmingly. State lawmakers drafted other police reforms, too.
Jesse Johnson: “So about six months we hashed out all the details of the bill. We had really tough conversations, often late at night on Zoom. You know, it was a tough six months, I'll be honest. And then we brought in law enforcement, the last part. I’ve got to give kudos to the Fraternal Order of Police. They were the one police union out of all of them in our state that were willing to sit down in good faith and work with us to craft a bill to reflect what we wanted. The others just wanted to shut down the bill because they did not want to work on a bill and I don't think they thought it would pass.”
Kari Plog: New laws did pass, though — a dozen of them. The reforms did a lot. Bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants. A lower bar for taking badges away from problem cops. New penalties for officers who fail to intervene when they see a colleague using excessive force. And a new office of independent investigations will offer state oversight for these cases. The list goes on.
Jesse Johnson: “We set standards in place that were reflective of what the community wanted in a 21st century policing system. Like you cannot just slam someone on the ground brutally and, you know, choke them out or have them in handcuffs or with a, you know, one of those hoods on. That stuff cannot happen. But they're going to face backlash from a law enforcement community that doesn't believe in it and doesn't want to change. And just public perception. One of the toughest things I learned is people truly want to believe in their elected officials, but they also have their own subconscious beliefs that ‘We're going to believe a police officer more than some elected official.’ And so when police say something, for it to be true, even if it's not, some people in the public are going to believe that.”
Kari Plog: A year into these reforms, people were killed by police a lot less often. The number dropped by more than 60 percent — a five-year low in Washington state. And yet opponents — the Josh Harrises of the world, and many in law enforcement — argued the new laws were making Washington residents less safe by preventing police from doing their jobs. There was also pretty broad agreement that some of the laws weren’t clear enough or needed tweaking.
Jesse Johnson: “They were only in place about six months before we already had legislation to reverse course. And not even just from the Republican side, from the Democratic side, too. And so what made sense to me, though, was to go out and see it for myself. So I did go to the academy. I went on some ride alongs. What's working, what's not working? And I realized we we could tweak a few things, which we did. And we made the bills, I think, work better with the tweaks that we had.”
Kari Plog: Those tweaks included clarifying times when police can use force, like when someone flees a crime scene. Other efforts didn’t pass. But that doesn’t mean they won’t someday.
Jesse Johnson: “I think that police are so used to doing something the same for so long that it's really hard to adjust. Big transformational shifts are going to take time. Like, to undo it is just — I don't think it's a good thing. And I think it's, for the families, it's a slap in the face for all the work that they put in, not to mention the legacy of their loved ones.”
Kari Plog: One of the most outspoken opponents of these reforms is Pierce County’s popular new sheriff: Ed Troyer. People around here have seen his face on local TV and read his quotes in the newspaper for years.
Archival clip of TV news story: “Joining us now is Detective Ed Troyer, spokesperson for the Pierce County Sheriff's Office.”
Kari Plog: Whenever something terrible happened, he was there – a steady, familiar presence.
Archival clip of TV news story: “For more now we turn to Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Detective Ed Troyer. Detective, good morning and thank you for being here.”
Kari Plog: You might remember Josh Powell. He was a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife, Susan Cox Powell, in Utah. He eventually moved up to Pierce County with his kids. One day, ten years ago, during a supervised visit with his sons, Josh Powell locked a social worker out of his house, attacked the kids with a hatchet, and burned the home down with all of them inside.
Ed Troyer, in archival news clip: “We have a lot of people out here that are hurting. We have a lot of detectives and people that are close to the family and are close to the kids and have worked with them. It's one of the most horrific things we've ever seen.”
Kari Plog: A few years before that, a gunman murdered four police officers at a coffee shop.
Ed Troyer, in archival news clip: “This was more of an execution. Walked in with the specific mind of shooting police officers. No doubt that the four of them were police officers.”
Kari Plog: People have told me about times they ran into Troyer at the bar and offered to buy him a beer. A way to thank him, and acknowledge the emotional toll of the job.
Ed Troyer, in archival news clip: “We have no sense of motive. We can tell you that two of them were just flat executed, sitting writing reports.”
Kari Plog: Outside of work, Troyer has been pretty involved with charity: Toys for Tots, winter coat drives, the Special Olympics, disaster relief around the country. He even started a program for foster kids, called Charlie’s Dinosaur, in honor of one of the murdered Powell boys. He’s been a longtime foster parent himself. Troyer took a lot of criticism for his role in setting the early narrative of Manny’s death. But he was still really popular.
Archival clip of TV news story: “And Detective Troyer will now become Sheriff Ed Troyer. Longtime supporter of Crimestoppers and Toys for Tots, does a lot for the community. And now he'll be leading this department.”
Kari Plog: In an election with one of the highest turnouts Pierce County has ever seen, Troyer won the sheriff’s race with nearly two-thirds of the vote.
Archival clip of TV news story: “One thing I can tell you about Ed Troyer: He'll always tell you the straight story. Never tries to varnish it. He'll always tell you exactly what's going on. There's no covering it up. So you can count on that going forward.”
Clip of radio chatter: “Radio.”
Ed Troyer: “Hey, it’s Troyer.”
“What can I do for you?”
Kari Plog: Since becoming sheriff, though, a lot of the attention on Troyer has been focused on a call he made in the middle of the night in late January 2021.
Ed Troyer, in radio chatter: “I'm at 27th and Deidra, in Tacoma, in North End. About two blocks from my house and I caught some in my driveway who’s just threatened to kill me. And I’ve blocked him in. He’s here right now.”
Kari Plog: Troyer called 911 shortly after 2 a.m. He had been following someone through his Tacoma neighborhood, someone he thought looked suspicious. Troyer said the man he was following had threatened to kill him.
Ed Troyer, in radio chatter: “In my driveway, in my neighbor's driveway, and he knows who I am and he threatened to kill me. And I got him blocked in the 27th and Deidra.”
Kari Plog: This type of call officer needs help is one of the most serious calls that can be dispatched. It alerted more than 40 officers countywide. More than a dozen showed up. When they got there, they surrounded a man named Sedrick Altheimer — a Black newspaper carrier working his regular route.
Sedrick Altheimer, from body camera footage: “I'm being followed. He called the cops. Congratulations. I'm coming to and from a house. ‘Oh, he's committing a crime. He's Black. He's Black. He's Black.’ Oh, I'm doing my fucking paper route.”
Police officer: “Okay. I understand that. I see all the papers in your car.”
Sedrick Altheimer: “Congratulations.”
Police officer: “He just called, saying that someone threatened his life. That's why we're here, okay?”
Sedrick Altheimer: “Okay. Yeah, I threatened his life because I walked up to him and asked him why he's following me.”
Kari Plog: Tacoma police questioned Troyer, and records show he took back what he said about the death threats.
Archival clip of TV news story: “Now, Pierce County has told us that tomorrow the council will be holding a meeting in order to determine whether or not to move forward with hiring former U.S. attorney Brian Moran to look into the incident and conduct the independent investigation.”
Kari Plog: Troyer had only been sheriff for a couple of months when this happened. His department was still under heavy scrutiny for how it handled Manny’s case.
Archival clip of TV news story: “Moran will also be looking into Troyer’s past to see if there was any misuse of authority, which includes Troyer’s time as deputy and his public statements surrounding the death of Manuel Ellis.”
Kari Plog: An independent report has already found that the sheriff violated department policies when he called 911 that night. The former U.S. attorney who authored it wrote that Troyer was untruthful and exhibited bias against Altheimer. The report says it’s “not hyperbole” that the newspaper carrier, while surrounded by police, could have been, quote, “an unintentional or misperceived gesture away from serious harm or worse.” Troyer is facing calls to resign, a multimillion dollar lawsuit, civil rights complaints, and he’s accused of crimes.
Dori Monson, in archival clip: “The witch hunt against our police officers continues at breakneck speed.”
Dori Monson, in archival clip: “Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that he was filing two charges against Pierce County Sheriff Ed Toyer.”
Kari Plog: Troyer is charged with misdemeanors for false reporting and giving a false or misleading statement to a public servant.
Ed Troyer, in archival clip: “I could have retired when I was 53, and I love this job and I love the people of Pierce County. And I hung on because I want to fight through what's going on against law enforcement right now. And I knew this was coming. I'm built for it. And I'm going to take it all the way to the mat.”
Kari Plog: He’s pleaded not guilty and, as of this recording, his trial is just about to start. Earlier this year, hundreds of law enforcement officers traveled to Pierce County from around the region, and even out of state, to honor a sheriff’s deputy who was shot and killed on the job.
Ed Troyer, from recording of memorial: “Dom was a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a best friend. I had the privilege this week of meeting his family.”
Kari Plog: During his remarks about that fallen deputy, Sheriff Ed Troyer went off script several times to talk politics.
Ed Troyer, from recording of memorial: “I wanted to say everybody here in this room that's in law enforcement joined to fight the bad guys. We didn’t know we were gonna have to fight Olympia too. And I was told to pass that on and we’ll leave it at that. But we are working hard to change that. And we all appreciate everybody who stuck in this job and stuck in this department.”
Kari Plog: After spending years talking to Troyer the spokesman — someone who was cooperative and helpful, even chummy with the media — this new Troyer, the sheriff, is taking a different tone. Now he’s a politician, leaning heavily into a new narrative that’s getting more popular in the U.S.
Ed Troyer, from recording of memorial: “To the citizens of Pierce County, we are here, we are strong, and every day the men and women of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department stand ready to protect you and your loved ones. We know that most people support us, and we don’t listen to the very few that scream the loudest. So we’ll be out there every day taking care of business and making sure that you and your families are safe.”
Kari Plog: The day Troyer was charged, he released a long statement attacking Bob Ferguson, the attorney general, who filed the charges — the same attorney general who charged those three Tacoma officers for killing Manny Ellis. Troyer called Ferguson “anti-law and order”… saying he is creating more crime, empowering criminals, and causing division. At the end of his statement, Troyer wrote: “We can either have a safe community where police are allowed to do their job or we can have the cops handcuffed and the criminals run free. I ask for your support in standing up to the bullies in power.” Those are some of the same talking points Josh Harris used in his campaign for county council.
Josh Harris: “Regardless of what happens tonight, I’m going to keep pushing for the changes we need.”
Kari Plog: He went on to lose in the primary election. He ran as a Republican, and the GOP vote was split among four candidates.
Josh Harris: “We know we need policy changes so police can do their job. We need homelessness accountability on these resources. We need to fix these issues with homelessness. And the big, big part that involves the state is mental health, right? And these are the three big things that are just killing our community right now.”
Kari Plog: But even though Josh lost, his message is still circulating. The Republican who just barely squeaked by him has signs around town that read “STOP THE CRIME.” I saw Sheriff Troyer at Josh’s election night party earlier this year. I asked if he would sit down for an interview like his friend Josh did. He said he’d think about it, but his lawyers probably wouldn’t let him. I followed up multiple times, and never heard back. He’s cited ongoing legal issues as a reason not to talk to me. That hasn’t stopped him from talking to other people, though.
Will James: “I’m recording. So, okay, we’re outside the Tacoma Sportsmen's Club in rural-ish Pierce County. Right?”
Kari Plog: “That’s right, yeah, in unincorporated Pierce County kind of on the border of, I’d say, Graham and Puyallup.”
Kari Plog: That brings us back to the day of Troyer’s speech, at the gun club.
Kari Plog: “Are you here to see Ed Troyer speak tonight?”
Kari Plog: “I was wondering if I could just ask you a couple questions about why you’re here.”
Unknown: “No, that’s okay.”
Kari Plog: “Are you sure?”
Unknown: “Yeah, I’m sure.”
Kari Plog: “Okay, alright.”
Will James: “No worries. Take care.”
Kari Plog: My colleague Will James and I are in the parking lot trying to catch people on their way inside. At the very least, we want to talk to them about their general attitudes about police.
Kari Plog: “Just kind of curious why you decided to come out tonight, I mean.”
Unknown: “Because she told me to”
Unknown: “Yeah, I’m not interested.”
Kari Plog: “Okay.”
Will James: “No worries.”
Kari Plog: “Thank you.”
Kari Plog: But we’re striking out. So, instead, we decide to stop recording.
Will James: “What if I…”
Kari Plog: “Do you want to try to go in?”
Kari Plog: And walk inside.
Kari Plog: “Yeah.”
Will James: “Let’s see what happens.”
Kari Plog: “Do you want to both of us try to go in?”
Kari Plog: “So, Will, what happened after the recorder turned off?”
Will James: “You and I walked into a big open room. And what I remember are animal heads all over the walls, like deer and goats.”
Kari Plog: “It's funny that you notice that because that's like white noise to me growing up in Pierce County.”
Will James: “Yeah. It had the vibe of a town hall. Almost everyone, if not everyone, there was white. So the organizer of the event, she starts making announcements and setting some ground rules. She says no recording or photographs are allowed. And then she asks, ‘Is anyone in the media here?’ You and I don't raise our hands. This was an event advertised to the public. An elected official was speaking to a large crowd of people. And even though it was at a private venue, the organizers really didn't have a right to deny media entry to the event. So we stayed. Then the organizer says something like, If anyone is here to make trouble, they will be ushered out by proud members of the Second Amendment Foundation and the NRA. You and I kind of look at each other. You've been a reporter here in Pierce County for a long time. Ed Troyer knows your face. And we were worried that he might, I don't know, call you out. So you made a decision to leave. I'm in a different situation. Ed Troyer doesn't know what I look like. And also like I'm a white guy with a shaved head and tattoos and I just sort of blended in a little better.”
Kari Plog: “Because that I mean, that room was really male. There were a lot of men there.”
Will James: “Yeah, totally.”
Kari Plog: “What exactly did Troyer say after I slipped out the back door?”
Will James: “It was a very political speech tailored for a friendly conservative audience. He talked about how liberal judges were letting too many criminals out on bail. He talked about how no one really wants to be a cop in Washington State anymore because of the regulations. So, he says, deputies are moving back to conservative states where they can do, quote unquote, “real police work.” And he talked about the reforms that came down from the statehouse. He called them a failed experiment. He picked out this one regulation limiting when police can chase people in their vehicles, and he said if the show Cops came back to Pierce County today, it would be really boring because, you know, it would be videos of criminals fleeing and cops not chasing them.”
Kari Plog: “So it sounds like Troyer then was building a narrative, really.”
Will James: “Yeah. Troyer was saying all this crime that you're seeing, it's not the police's fault. It's not the sheriff's fault. It's the fault of liberals who are restricting what police can do. And if you want to change that, you'd better vote liberals out of office. He also, like, he had a lot of laugh lines and applause lines that were very much tailored to a certain crowd. It's like making fun of the coronavirus and how dangerous it was or wasn’t. Joking about how, you know, ‘The sheriff's department is never going to crack down on guns because we'd have to, like, write up all our own people.’ Like joking that the cops are all part of the Second Amendment crowd. Troyer was sending all these signals to the crowd. Like our sheriff's deputies, they're part of your community. You're all part of the same crowd. You know, he's saying the police, the sheriff's department shares your world view. That's the message he's sending to that crowd in all of this subtext and these cultural touchstones.”
Kari Plog: “Well, and what's interesting to me when I hear Ed Troyer and Josh Harris and other people who think like them talk about police reform and, you know, this feeling that we're becoming less safe in our communities, the question I ask myself is becoming less safe for who? What people are they talking about?”
Will James: “When you walked out of that room, what was going through your head?”
Kari Plog: “There was a real threat of violence. I mean, it was a veiled threat of violence, but it was there. The language was, you know, strong enough that made me feel like it could escalate beyond just words, which was why I had that strong urge to leave.”
Will James: “You know, I should say before and after you left that room, there were people, I think, volunteers kind of walking among the crowd, trying to figure out maybe who the journalists were.”
Kari Plog: “Actually, I think that was the moment I decided to leave, was the organizer walked up to the table directly in front of where you and I were sitting, whispered something to the guy in front of me, and he turned around and almost look directly at me.”
Will James: “Right. I have reported with you for years, though, and we have been in awkward, uncomfortable situations together.”
Kari Plog: “We have.”
Will James: “You know, the reaction you had, I just wonder if there was something else layered on top of it, too.”
Kari Plog: “I think part of why I had such a visceral reaction to what happened, you know, I have this image of my home. This is where I'm from. This is where I grew up. And I didn't recognize my home in that room, even though we were physically only five or 10 minutes from my childhood home. You know, I've grown up around people that think, you know, ‘Government should leave me alone. I don't like taxes. I love my guns.’ I have people in my family who are like that. Yeah. Like the animal heads on the walls, you know, like I associate with that, you know, like hunting and, like, growing up and my dad going hunting and being outdoors, like the love of the outdoors and stuff like that. But this felt different. This felt like something you would see somewhere else, something more extreme, something more tribal. And that was a little unsettling to not recognize the place that you feel like, you know. I've been thinking about this idea of home and what home is, right? Home is obviously a place, but it's also a feeling. It's this idea that you can walk into a space or go back to a space and let your guard down and exhale and be your full self. I kind of feel this in a way when I drive home and I drive out of Tacoma and I drive, you know, for Sunday dinner with my family, and I'm listening to country music and I feel like this is, you know, I'm in my element. And that is sort of one way to look at this racial justice movement that we all just lived through. There was a group of people who poured into the streets saying that they haven't felt safe. They haven't felt comfortable. They haven't felt at home, right?”
Will James: “It's also, like, it makes you think about whether there's another side to the idea of home. It's also something that you sort of, you bunker down in, something you cling to, something you defend. And, like, whiteness is a version of home.”
Kari Plog: “And it's kind of unclear watching what's happened over the last couple of years exactly which version of the world, which version of home that we're all living in.”
Kari Plog: On the final episode of The Walk Home…
Kari Plog: “As the adrenaline started wearing off that day, it was sort of going through your mind? What were you thinking about?”
Monèt Carter-Mixon: “How do I keep my baby alive?”
Kari Plog: Two years after Manny was killed, what kind of world are we living in today? The Walk Home is a production of KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times. It’s reported, written, and produced by me, Kari Plog; Mayowa Aina; Will James; and Seattle Times senior investigative reporter Patrick Malone. Our editor is Tiara Darnell. Our executive producers are Florangela Davila and Jonathan Martin. Bethany Denton is our mix engineer. Music comes from Tacoma artists Will Jordan, Marcel E.C. Augustin; and Quincy “Q Dot” Henry. Our cover art is by Rotator Creative. Additional audio comes from The Seattle Times videography team. Research by Miyoko Wolf. Our website is by Parker Miles Blohm. Cara Kuhlman is our online managing editor. Special thanks to Melissa Santos and to the Ellis family for sharing their story.