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Pierce County judge orders City of Tacoma to release unredacted police records in Manuel Ellis case

A concrete sign with the words Tacoma Police Department Headquarters sits in front of a glass and brick building.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
The headquarters for the Tacoma Police Department on South Pine Street in Tacoma.

The City of Tacoma must release unredacted transcripts of police interviews to state prosecutors, who have charged three Tacoma officers with felonies in the killing of Manuel Ellis.

Officers Matthew Collins and Christopher “Shane” Burbank are charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in Ellis’ death on March 3, 2020. Timothy Rankine is charged with first-degree manslaughter in the case. The officers have pleaded not guilty.

The records subject to the ruling, which KNKX Public Radio learned about Thursday, are part of an internal investigation that will determine whether the three men – who remain on paid administrative leave – will keep their jobs. A subpoena issued by the state attorney general earlier this year sought statements from their colleagues in that probe. The city released the records, but fully redacted them.

Last month, the city joined attorneys for Burbank in a fight to block the release of those records. They argued that the transcripts fell under a legal standard, the so-called Garrity decision, that says compelled statements from police officers can’t be used against them in criminal proceedings.

The state attorney general strongly disagreed, calling the interpretation “extreme” and warning of the “dangerous precedent” it would set.

“While the City may believe maintaining this veil of secrecy may promote its own institutional well-being, it is antithetical to the pursuit of truth and justice that lies at the heart of Washington’s criminal justice system,” prosecutors wrote in their response.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff said during a hearing on July 1 that he would make a decision after reviewing the records in question. He sided with the state, in a ruling dated Aug. 2, ordering the city to immediately respond to the subpoena without any redaction.

He did, however, make an exception for one of the officers.The judge ruled that the statement from Armando Farinas would be withheld in its entirety because it could subject him to criminal prosecution.

Farinas was involved in restraining Ellis, placing a spit hood over his head before he died on a South Tacoma street corner. Farinas was cleared to return to work in December 2021, after the ongoing internal investigation exonerated him and Officer Masyih Ford of any wrongdoing in the case.

“Be clear, I am not suggesting that Officer Farinas has committed a crime nor that there is probable cause to so find,” Chushcoff wrote in his ruling, adding that the transcript could be made available “should appropriate immunity from prosecution be arranged.”

In a statement Thursday, city spokesperson Maria Lee said there are no plans to appeal the court's decision.

"The City is submitting a proposed written order to the judge tomorrow. Once the judge signs the order, the City will turn over the statements," Lee said in the email.

Meanwhile, the officers continue to await trial on the charges. That is scheduled for January 2023.

Updated: August 11, 2022 at 5:12 PM PDT
Added information from City of Tacoma spokesperson Maria Lee.
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.