The Tacoma police chief’s decision Tuesday to exonerate of any wrongdoing two of the officers involved in the March 2020 death of Manuel Ellis has left Ellis’ family angry and “heartbroken but not surprised,” according to one of their attorneys.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards acknowledged Tuesday that some would be upset with the decision to clear the officers and allow them to return to the streets, and urged calm.

Some of the sharpest criticism came from Ellis’ family and their attorneys, who expressed outrage that Officers Masyih Ford and Armando Farinas would face no punishment in the killing of the 33-year-old Black man while he was in police custody. Three other Tacoma officers have been criminally charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter for the killing of Ellis, who cried “I can’t breathe!” before he died of oxygen deprivation while being restrained.

“No one should be so naive to think that the Tacoma Police Department is motivated to police its own conduct and conduct a genuine investigation of what happened on March 3, 2020,” said attorney Matthew Ericksen, who described Ellis’ family as heartbroken but hardly surprised by the decision.  

“This is our Christmas present. Merry Christmas to the Ellis family … we get to see officers go back to work after killing somebody,” said Ellis’ older brother, Matthew Ellis.

Ford and Farinas had been under internal investigation by the department for possible policy violations in connection with the March 3, 2020, death of Ellis. Interim Tacoma police Chief Mike Ake presented the findings of that investigation to Woodards and the City Council on Tuesday morning. The council met in closed session for nearly an hour before the announcement.

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Ake said Ford, 29, and Farinas, 27, have been on administrative leave for more than a year and will have to undergo extensive training before they are returned to active service. The report detailing the investigation into the two officers was posted Tuesday on the city of Tacoma’s website.

Ake said Farinas was the officer who placed a spit hood over Ellis’ head during the arrest. He said the officer’s actions were “reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances.”

“At the time of the application, officers on scene, including Officer Farinas, were concerned about a possible biohazard exposure due to Mr. Ellis spitting near officers,” the chief told the council. “Officer Farinas was familiar with how a spit hood worked and volunteered to retrieve one and apply it. Once the spit hood was applied, Officer Farinas had no other contact with Mr. Ellis.”

Ford, he said, helped hold Ellis’ legs down during the arrest and spent time talking to Ellis, “trying to calm him down and let him know medical aid was on the way.”

“When Mr. Ellis commented that he could not breathe, Officer Ford assisted
in rolling him onto his side in a recovery position,” the chief said. “He also was the first officer to alert arriving medical personnel that Mr. Ellis’ condition was deteriorating.”

Ellis, a lifelong Tacoma resident, died on the street while being treated by the medics, according to reports.

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Two Tacoma officers, Matthew Collins, 38, and Christopher “Shane” Burbank, 35, face second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter charges, and officer Timothy “Timmy” Rankine, 32, is charged with first-degree manslaughter in connection with Ellis’ death.

Ellis had been staying at a sober-living home in south Tacoma called God’s Hand Up and on the night he died, he was returning home from a 7-Eleven with a bag of doughnuts. According to charging documents, Officers Collins and Burbank said they saw him in the middle of an intersection, hassling occupants of a passing car. A brief confrontation became violent, with Burbank knocking Ellis to the ground with his car door, the documents say.

Charges allege that Collins used a “lateral vascular neck restraint” from behind while Burbank repeatedly used a Taser on Ellis.

At least a half-dozen eyewitnesses, two of whom filmed the incident with their cellphone cameras, told investigators that the officers launched an unprovoked attack on Ellis, the records show. The witnesses contradicted the statements of Collins and Burbank.

The internal investigation exonerated Farinas of allegations of “unsatisfactory performance” of his duties and Ford for allegations of excessive use of force, Ake said.

Ellis’ family and their attorneys expressed outrage over the decision during a Tuesday afternoon news conference via Zoom.

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James Bible, an attorney for the family, said the city is ignoring the fact that Ellis was in a completely vulnerable position when he was being restrained. Ake’s decision to exonerate the two offices is telling the public that there will be no accountability for officers who murder as well those who stand by and allow it to happen.

“All of Tacoma should be ashamed,” Bible said.

The city did not find that Farinas violated policy because the police department has none when it comes to the use of spit masks, which are dangerous and deadly devices if not used properly, said Stephen Dermer, an Ellis family attorney. The department doesn’t train officers on how to use the masks, he added. 

During the news conference, the Ellis family’s attorneys displayed a photo of a warning label on a spit mask, also known as transport hood, that indicates the devices could cause injury or lead to death from asphyxiation, suffocation or drowning in one’s own fluids.

“What the city of Tacoma really told you all is that they advocate for and allow their officers to be able to do whatever they want to bodies of Black people when they’re walking home from 7-Elevens,” Bible said.

Leslie Cushman, a civil rights attorney and the citizen sponsor of Initiative 940, which changed the laws around when police can use deadly force and requires officers to be trained in de-escalation techniques, called the decision “beyond disappointing.”

“This sets the bar as low as you can go,” she said in a tweet shortly after Ake’s decision was announced. “And what did they do following the brutality? Did they report the cover-up? There are no clean hands among the officers present that night.”

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Ellis’s death sparked widespread protests and led to the first criminal charges in decades against police officers for using excessive force during an arrest.

Ford and Farinas are named as defendants in a federal wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit filed in September by Ellis’ family.

The lawsuit brought by Ellis’ sister Monet Carter-Mixon and their mother, Marcia Carter, in U.S. District Court in Tacoma also names the three officers charged in connection with Ellis’ death as well as the Tacoma Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department as defendants.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.