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Chief confirms Tacoma internal investigation into officers accused of killing Manuel Ellis on hold

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.

When the state attorney general charged three Tacoma police officers with felonies for killing Manuel Ellis, it triggered an internal affairs investigation into the officers’ conduct.

City leaders at the time, in May 2021, promised transparency and swift action on the administrative review, including publicizing a loose goal of 90 days for finishing it.

Nearly two years later, the city’s police chief has confirmed that the investigation is on hold until the criminal trial takes place later this year.

“We don't do the internal investigation until after the criminal [investigation],” Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore told KNKX in an interview Wednesday.

Ellis, who was Black, was walking home from a convenience store the night of March 3, 2020, when he was stopped by police. He died after being tased, choked, masked with a nylon hood and hogtied while repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe.

Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank, who are white, are charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in Ellis’ death. Timothy Rankine, who is Asian American, is also charged with first-degree manslaughter. All of them have pleaded not guilty.

By the time those charges were filed and the internal investigation started, Collins, Burbank and Rankine had been on paid leave for a year.

“The Council and I will be holding the City Manager fully accountable for this review, including responsibility for reporting back to us and the community on a regular basis on how the work is progressing,” Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards wrote in a lengthy statement the day charges were filed.

Months later, the department cleared two other Tacoma officers of any wrongdoing, partially completing that internal investigation. Masyih Ford and Armando Farinas, who have not been charged with any crimes, returned to work.

Once more, city leaders offered assurances to the public: they said the department was “getting closer” to finishing the investigation into the three officers who are awaiting trial.

Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore
Tacoma Police Department
Avery Moore previously served at the Dallas Police Department before being appointed Tacoma's police chief.

As all of this was happening, Tacoma Police Department was under interim leadership after the city's longest serving chief, Don Ramsdell, announced his retirement in the summer of 2020. City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said any decisions about the employment of Collins, Burbank and Rankine would fall to the new chief.

Not long after, Moore arrived from Dallas and took over the department, telling KNKX that the case was weighing heavily on him. He said that hasn’t changed today.

Still, he said the internal probe would not continue or result in any disciplinary action until a verdict in the criminal case happens. That trial is scheduled for September, after it was delayed due to a dispute over public records that has since been resolved.

A police department spokesperson told KNKX in an email last year that there is no specific policy that determines what order criminal and internal investigations happen. “It will depend on the specific facts of and circumstances of each case,” Wendy Haddow wrote in October.

In the interview at his office on Wednesday, Moore explained the reasoning behind waiting.

"There's certain things in an internal investigation that you can actually compel an officer to give a statement where in criminal you can't," Moore said. "So to keep them separate, we do the administrative investigation after the criminal investigation."

Moore did not cite any specific department policy, saying only that it’s “pretty much a national standard because you don't want to jeopardize the criminal case.”

That appears to be inconsistent with other deadly force cases that have resulted in charges elsewhere around the country, including the prosecution of the officers who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and the officers accused of killing Tyre Nichols in Memphis earlier this year. Those officers had administrative actions taken against them while criminal cases were pending.

Although the Tacoma Police Department’s investigation into any potential policy violations is on hold, the state’s criminal investigation alleges the officers’ use of force the night Ellis died was inconsistent with department policies and Washington state law, according to charging documents.

State prosecutors spent months laying out their case against Collins, Burbank and Rankine. They say the timeline they built, using synchronized video and audio along with witness interviews, shows probable cause for multiple crimes committed against Ellis.

Officers Burbank and Collins are accused of illegally detaining and beating Ellis. Officer Rankine is accused of continuing to use force after Ellis was in medical distress. All of them are accused of failing to get him medical aid.

A civil case filed by Ellis’ family on behalf of his estate is also on hold pending a verdict in the criminal case. In January, U.S. District Court Judge Lauren King ordered a stay on proceedings in that case, according to court documents.

The officers will remain on paid leave through their trial, which is scheduled for September. It’s expected to last at least two months.

Updated: April 12, 2023 at 10:18 AM PDT
Included updated photo of Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore.
Updated: April 6, 2023 at 4:35 PM PDT
Added audio, details about officers' paid leave.
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.