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Tacoma Council approves police contract after officers cleared in Ellis death

A Black woman sits in front of a microphone and plaque reading "Mayor Woodards," with a U.S. and Washington state flag in the background.
Tacoma TV
Mayor Victoria Woodards spoke at the Tacoma City Council on Jan. 16 after approving a new police union contract, the same day the Police Chief cleared the three officers recently acquitted in the March 2020 death of Manny Ellis.

The Tacoma City Council approved a new police union contract on Tuesday night, the same day Tacoma Police Chief Avery More "exonerated" the three officers recently acquitted in the March 2020 death of Manny Ellis and agreed to pay each of them $500,000 for their resignations.

"For those who have called for the firing of the officers, rest assured that the three former officers will not return to service on the streets of Tacoma," said Mayor Victoria Woodards, who then criticized the officers' attorneys for reneging on a promise to keep the agreement confidential until the chief's announcement.

Ellis case influences policy reforms

Former officers Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank and Timothy Rankine were acquitted of murder and manslaughter last month. The officers also collected close to $1.5 million dollars collectively in salary over the more than three years they were on leave and awaiting a verdict in their trial over the death of Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man.

As a part of the city's new contract for rank-and-file officers, internal investigations can now run concurrently with criminal prosecutions, and the department is required to suspend officers charged with serious crimes without pay.

Police Chief Avery Moore said officers did not violate use-of-force policies in effect at the time but noted policy reform since 2020. The Police Department previously lacked guidelines on when to use spit masks and how to hogtie detainees, which medical experts cited as contributing to Ellis' eventual suffocation. Moore cited Collins for cursing at Ellis after he said, "Can't breathe, sir," according to city records.

The state Criminal Justice Training Commission has not moved to decertify the officers. The officers’ certifications would have been automatically revoked if they were fired or resigned in lieu of termination.

Collins and Burbank, who are both white, called Ellis over to their patrol car while stopped at a red light and said Ellis suddenly attacked them, according to trial testimony. Three eyewitnesses testified at trial that the officers were the aggressors. Rankine, who is Asian American, arrived as backup and pressed on Ellis’ back for several minutes while he was hogtied face down despite him saying he couldn’t breathe.

Former Interim Police Chief Mike Ake previously “exonerated” two other officers, Armando Farinas and Masyih Ford, in December 2021 after internal investigations. Ford was Rankine's partner and also helped restrain Ellis. Farinas arrived minutes later and placed a spit hood over Ellis' head.

Last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced it was reviewing the state Attorney General’s criminal investigation of Ellis’ death.

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Ellis' family against the city of Tacoma and the officers is also pending.

Ellis' sister, Monét Carter-Mixon, addressed the Council during the public comment period, saying the police union's newest contract fell short of needed reforms.

"You guys cannot continue to let killer cops get away with beating people senselessly in the middle of the street and acting like they didn't do anything wrong," she said.

Council Members speak publicly about the case

Several Council Members, some speaking publicly about the case for the first time in years, called the contract's new policies progress because officers facing prosecution in the future could be suspended without pay, investigated immediately and disciplined before a criminal verdict.

"I know that these officers were largely cleared because the policy at the time allowed for that kind of behavior," said Council Member Catherine Ushka. "Just because something is legal does not make it right. We have better policy now. But that doesn't take away the loss, particularly for Manuel Ellis' family."

Council Member Kiara Daniels, who is Black, said she and other council members of color carry a unique burden trying to make change in the city.

"Not wanting to represent a system that quite literally has made it legal to kill people that look like you, it is traumatizing," Daniels said.

Mayor Woodards, who is also Black, apologized to Ellis’ sister, Carter-Mixon, in the audience.

"I just want you to know that the apology is sincere and our commitment to the work is real," Woodards said.

Newly elected Council Member Jamika Scott, who is also Black, is a close friend of Ellis’ sister and co-founded the Tacoma Action Collection advocacy group, which advocated for Ellis' family in the wake of his death.

"It's time for us to put the conversation around our community safety at the forefront," Scott said. "I know that it feels like that's all we've been talking about. But we haven't really talked about it."

"We hear about results, and we hear about, you know, verdicts, and so on. But what we haven't actually heard is the full story of Manuel Ellis. We haven't heard the full story of the former officers," Scott continued. "We don't know all of the things that happened, specifically, that allowed for Manny and those officers to meet at that intersection that night. There were a lot of other systemic failures that allowed for these things to take place."

Jared Brown was a Poynter Media and Journalism Fellow based at KNKX covering the intersections of policing, courts and power with a focus on accountability and solutions.