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Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards reflects on death of Manny Ellis, police reform

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards took office in 2018 and was re-elected in 2021.
Brian Cox
City of Tacoma
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards took office in 2018 and was re-elected in 2021.

One of the most memorable moments in the city of Tacoma’s response to the March 2020 death of Manny Ellis in police custody was the fiery speech from Mayor Victoria Woodards in June 2020, where she called for the officers involved to be fired and prosecuted.

Video from Ellis’ March arrest had surfaced earlier that day, showing two police officers punching, choking and tasering him in the minutes before he suffocated while restrained face down in a hogtie.

Since then, Woodards has commented very little about the details of the case and the trial of the officers, despite calls for her to give a fuller accounting of Ellis’ death and allegations that her office has been complicit in attempts to withhold those details from the public.

Mayor Woodards addresses some of those questions during an in-depth interview with KNKX reporter Mayowa Aina for The Walk Home, a podcast from KNKX and The Seattle Times about Ellis' life and the questions raised by his death.

Click "Listen" above to hear their conversation.


Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

KNKX reporter Mayowa Aina: I just want to start with maybe not the future, but where we are now as a city and in relation to what's happened with Manny Ellis and the city's relationship to the Tacoma Police Department. 

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards: There are a lot of things that we've done and I'll start with one of the most important things, and that'shiring Chief Moore, hiring our new police chief. We've implemented body cams and dash cams. We've done a comprehensive review of all of our policies.

We have done some other things that are important. Things like alternative response making sure that we're sending the right response to the right call.

We've updated our use-of-force policies. We had already implemented "8 can't wait" which is a national standard. So those are just some of the things that we've done, so you can tell we've been doing a lot of work and we'll continue to do a lot of work. I think one of the other things I would say that we've done and you all have heard about is that we just finished bargaining for our police contract.

And we implemented felony suspensions, which means now that when an officer is charged, if officers are ever charged again with the felony, then we can actually suspend them without pay at the time that they're charged. The other thing that we bargained with [Tacoma Police Union IUPA] Local 6 is we actually now can complete an investigation before the criminal trial has ended.

Aina: So I do want to go back to 2020 and just kind of revisit the timeline around how all of this unfolded and the response from the city. Could you tell me about when you first heard about what happened to Manny?

Woodards: Yes. Now I have a horrible memory, so let me just let me put that up front. But I guess it really came to light...I believe I spoke with the Ellis family. I may have spoke to the Ellis family sometime between in April or May briefly, but it really came to light obviously when the coroner made his ruling, and so I would say for sure that was the moment that I understood the gravity of what happened. 

Aina (narration): The day the homicide ruling was reported in the local newspaper in early June, Mayor Woodards gave her first press conference about Manny’s death.

We asked Monét Carter-Mixon, Manny Ellis’ sister, about the first time she talked with Mayor Woodards. She says it wasn’t until June, right before the mayor’s press conference, not earlier in the spring as Woodards recalled.

We know information about Manny’s death in custody was available before that. County officials were alerted to his death the morning after it happened in March.

Aina (interview): Did anybody alert you at that time, in March 2020, that this was something that may be a concern or something to be aware of?

Woodards: No, not to my recollection at all.

Aina (narration): Two days before the June newspaper report, an email from the federal Department of Homeland Security warned local law enforcement the announcement of the details of Manny’s death could be a flashpoint.

The Mayor gave that first press conference the day the homicide ruling came out. She gave a second one the next day after cellphone videos of the encounter surfaced online. She called for the officers to be fired and prosecuted.

Aina (interview): … and you had a very strong response to seeing those videos and had you known that those videos existed or was that news to you when they became public? 

Woodards: It was news to me. I had not seen or heard of them before.

Aina: What was kind of going on in the office at that time? Was there any sort of reaction in terms of, “This was a communication breakdown,” or, “This was, …” you know... How did you respond just in terms of the processes that were happening in the office?

Woodards: I really appreciate all of your questions and wanting to get to the background and would love to dive into these details, but it's, I think for me and for my city, moving forward is what's important to me. So if we can, I'd really like to kind of move forward to what we're again what we're doing now.

We can't change the past and I wish that we could, but all I can be responsible for is how how we move forward and how we put policies in place and how we change so that my community can heal and and be the Tacoma, the city of destiny, that we all want it to be.

Aina: But I do think part of that healing is sort of acknowledging some of the outstanding questions, and I believe there are people in our community who believe that you and the office was complicit in how all of this unfolded. So I do just want to try to get to some of that understanding from your perspective. Looking back, do you agree with those assertions that your office was complicit in this?

Woodards: I don't necessarily agree with that, that we were complicit. Were we perfect? No. Can we do better? Absolutely. And that's what we're working towards.

Aina: Has Manny's death changed you or how you approach the office of mayor at all? 

Woodards: Absolutely. (long pause)

I've not said this in public before. But if you look around my neck, I'm wearing this cross. I put this cross on the night of my press conference. I have not taken it off since and it is my personal reminder of what the Ellis family has experienced and what this community experienced and who Manny Ellis was. So I have a daily reminder of what has happened. But it also makes me work even harder, because I don't want another Black man to die in police custody in Tacoma.

Hear more from that interview and other updates in the latest episode of The Walk Home, coming out March 1. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.

KNKX reporter Jared Brown helped with the production of this interview.

Mayowa Aina covers cost-of-living and affordability issues in Western Washington. She focuses on how people do (or don't) make ends meet, impacts on residents' earning potential and proposed solutions for supporting people living at the margins of our community. Get in touch with her by emailing