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Two Tacoma police officers exonerated in death of Manuel Ellis

Supporters of Manuel Ellis hang a poster with his photo during a celebration in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood.
Parker Miles Blohm
KNKX file
Supporters of Manuel Ellis hang a poster with his photo during a celebration in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood in 2020.

Masyih Ford and Armando Farinas, two Tacoma police officers involved in the killing of Manuel Ellis in March 2020, have been exonerated of any wrongdoing following a months-long internal affairs investigation by the Tacoma Police Department.

The decision was announced during a special meeting of the Tacoma City Council on Tuesday morning. Ford, 29, and Farinas, 27, have not been charged with crimes in the case.

Ellis, a Black man, was stopped by Tacoma police while walking home from a convenience store in South Tacoma on the night of March 3, 2020. He was killed following a struggle with officers. The state attorney general has charged three other officers with felonies in the case: Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins are charged with second-degree murder, and Timothy Rankine is charged with first-degree manslaughter. Witness videos, detailed in the charging documents, captured Ellis repeatedly saying that he couldn't breathe during the encounter.

Ford and Farinas are cleared to return to work after they complete several weeks of mandatory training. Each has been on the force with Tacoma police for fewer than five years. Ford has worked for the department for two years. Farinas is nearing his fourth year.

“The training is absolutely necessary for them to come back,” interim Tacoma Police Chief Mike Ake said, citing significant changes to policing during their absence over the past year. Farinas was placed on leave in January, and Ford was placed on leave with the other three officers in June 2020 after the Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide.

Ford and Farinas were investigated for their role in detaining Ellis before he died. Farinas placed a spit hood over Ellis' head during the encounter, after Ellis was already on the ground being restrained by the other officers. Ford helped hold Ellis' legs and rolled him into a new position.

“When Mr. Ellis commented that he could not breathe, Officer Ford assisted in rolling him onto his side in a recovery position,” the city said in a news release.

Ake says the investigation involved a thorough review of the facts, which included reviewing thousands of documents from investigations by Tacoma police, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, the Washington State Patrol and the Attorney General’s Office. He said the actions of the officers were “reasonable and appropriate” and that they did not violate any policies.

Ake acknowledged that there could be challenges with those officers transitioning back into patrols. The Ellis case has garnered a lot of attention and there has been vocal opposition to the officers involved in his death, including those who were cleared of wrongdoing. But Ake said it’s something the department will help them through.

“In the end I exonerated them because they didn’t violate any policies,” he told reporters. “They are going to move on. They are going to do their job the best they can and we’ll have to address any issues that may come up.”

Ake said the department is “getting closer” to making a decision on the employment status of the officers who are charged with crimes. City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said she expects the earliest a recommendation could come is late January or early February. That would likely fall to the incoming police chief, Avery Moore, who is relocating from Dallas and will take over the department in the next few weeks.

Pauli said the city’s commitment to the public was to move swiftly and offer a decision “as timely as possible.” The investigation surpassed the initial 90-day goal, largely due to the complexity and the volume of information that was reviewed, officials said.

Pauli added that she can’t claim to understand the family’s grieving process or how the investigation has affected it. She also said she can’t speak to what will satisfy their definition of justice.

“What I can assert is that I have the deepest empathy for the family’s loss, and we have been mindful of the impacts on the family,” Pauli said.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards reiterated her deepest condolences to the family. She also stressed that these processes and outcomes address accountability, not grief. "They don’t account for the emotion that they create,” she said.

City officials are limiting their comments due to the ongoing criminal prosecution and the still incomplete internal review for the other three officers.

But an attorney for the family held a news conference Tuesday following the decision.

“We are not surprised that the City of Tacoma and its law enforcement would seek to absolve itself and its officers of any wrongdoing,” James Bible said during a virtual news conference. “Historically, that is exactly what law enforcement agencies and cities have done.”

Bible also disagreed with the findings that Ford and Farinas did not violate any department policies.

“I will tell you very concretely, there is a policy that law enforcement needs to intervene if they see somebody killing someone else. The reality is that a judge in Pierce County determined that there was probable cause for murder for three officers. Three officers that were involved in killing Manuel Ellis,” Bible said. “The reality is that these other officers end up being complicit on some level for their failure to actually intervene and stop and even perhaps participate in the death.”

Monét Carter-Mixon, Ellis’ sister, told KNKX Public Radio she’s angry about the city’s decision, one she says should not have been made by an interim chief. She also reiterated Bible’s remarks that cops shouldn’t investigate cops, saying this investigation should have been handled by an independent agency.

Carter-Mixon says her family still hasn’t been able to grieve.

“This isn’t something that most people can bear,” she said. "I don’t really want to bear it much longer.”

She added that before today’s decision, four days before Christmas, she was trying to take a step back from the stresses of this case and be present with her family, including her newborn son. Today’s announcement pulled her back in.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to do, is to just be with them and spend time with them because I know that time is limited,” she said. “And tomorrow’s not promised.”

Updated: December 21, 2021 at 5:11 PM PST
Adds comments from Ellis' sister, Monét Carter-Mixon; Ellis family attorney James Bible; and Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards.
Updated: December 21, 2021 at 4:35 PM PST
Complete write-through by Kari Plog.
Corrected: December 21, 2021 at 1:27 PM PST
Corrects Ford's age and length of time Farinas has been on paid administrative leave.
Updated: December 21, 2021 at 12:50 PM PST
Updates throughout.
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.