TACOMA — At least two previously unidentified law enforcement officers participated in restraining Manuel Ellis, a Black man who died in Tacoma police custody after his airways were restricted, investigative records from the Washington State Patrol on Wednesday revealed.
In addition to the four Tacoma police officers who remain on leave during the investigation into Ellis death, an off-duty sheriff’s sergeant helped shove Ellis’ leg into a hobble to hogtie him while he lay handcuffed and prone on the pavement, and a fifth Tacoma police officer placed a spit guard over Ellis’ head after he’d complained he couldn’t breathe. Soon afterward, Ellis was dead.
The details released in the report Wednesday underscored the stark contradictions and conflicts of interest that have marred the investigation into Ellis’ death: The involvement of the fifth Tacoma officer had never previously been revealed, and the sheriff’s’ sergeant, whose involvement disqualified the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department as the independent investigating agency, had not previously been named.
Ellis’ case has been invoked frequently in the Pacific Northwest amid the national reckoning over racial inequities in policing that have gripped the U.S. and flooded streets with protesters from coast to coast. His name has been a rallying cry for change in the streets of Seattle, and the halls of government, where Ellis’ case has been cited as the basis for police and mental health reforms.
Ellis, 33, was walking home from a convenience store on March 3 with a snack when Tacoma police say they saw him trying to get inside a car as it turned at an intersection. Police said Ellis aggressively charged one officer, lifted him up and violently hurled him to the ground, but video of the incident filmed by two eyewitnesses contradicted critical elements of the police narrative.
Ellis died at the scene from what the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office later determined was oxygen deprivation caused by restraint. The medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide, prompting officers Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank, Masyih Ford and Timothy Rankine to be placed on leave.
The newly released records show Collins and Burbank were the first to encounter Ellis, followed by Ford and Rankine, who arrived when Ellis was already handcuffed. They relieved Collins and Burbank held Ellis down.
The Washington State Patrol named the previously unidentified participants in Ellis’ restraint as Pierce County Sheriff’s Office Det. Sgt. Gary Sanders, who bent Ellis’ leg while others hobbled him, and Tacoma Police Officer Armando Farina, who applied a spit hood over Ellis’ head. Neither has faced suspension; both have been classified as witnesses and not targets of the investigation.
Tacoma Police Department spokesperson Officer Wendy Haddow said the department is reserving comment until it has seen the investigative records released by the state patrol.
Sgt. Darren Moss, spokesperson for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, said in a phone interview that Sanders had not been suspended for his role in restraining Ellis.
James Bible, the Seattle lawyer representing Ellis’ family in a lawsuit against the city of Tacoma, said the revelation more than nine months after Ellis’ death that more officers participated in the physical restraint that the medical examiner ruled killed him has added to his family’s pain and frustration.
“It is clear that Manuel Ellis was murdered,” Bible said in a phone interview. “It’s clear that he was on his stomach, that he was hobbled, that he was bleeding from his mouth and that he was telling officers ‘I can’t breathe sir’ when the officers so callously disregarded his humanity and then put a spit mask over his head.”
Attorney General Bob Ferguson has received the state patrol’s report that was obtained by The Seattle Times under the Public Disclosure Act and is reviewing the investigation to determine whether anyone will face charges.
Collins, Burbank, Ford and Rankine were allowed to return to work just two weeks later, but were again placed on leave in June after the medical examiner’s ruling. They remain on paid leave.
A three-month investigation into Ellis’ death by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department fell apart over a previously undisclosed conflict of interest — the presence of an officer, who was not identified as Sanders until Wednesday’s report. Gov. Jay Inslee intervened, handing the investigation to the Washington State Patrol and Ferguson’s office.
The initial Pierce County Sheriff’s investigation was flawed from the start, with eyewitnesses contradicting police accounts of Ellis’ fatal encounter with police, Seattle Times reporting has shown.
Sara McDowell and Samuel Cowden, who were both driving by and filmed parts of the fatal encounter, characterized officers as the aggressors. Their accounts and videos indicate Ellis was placed in a chokehold and shocked with a Taser, his head or neck pinned under an officer’s knee. Neither was interviewed during the Sheriff’s investigation, but spoke to state patrol investigators.
Farina’s police report said he arrived on the scene to find Ellis “face down in handcuffs which also had a hobble connected to them. The subject was alert and breathing and had blood on his face and coming from his mouth. Due to his assaultive behavior I placed a spit hood over the subject’s head to protect everyone on scene from possible exposure.“
Sanders, a 20-year law enforcement veteran, had worked his day job at the sheriff’s department before moonlighting from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Pacific Lutheran University, when he responded to the call about Ellis.
When he arrived in his unmarked personal vehicle, Sanders said he saw “four Tacoma police officers fighting with (Ellis).” Sanders helped the officers place a hobble on Ellis, cuffing his legs and connecting them to his handcuffs with a strap. “I just grabbed his foot and pulled it up toward his, his waist…he cinched it into the handcuffs, and then he was, there, he was pretty much contained at that point.”
Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer, through Moss, the department spokesperson, said Sanders’ account in the state patrol report matched Troyer’s understanding of the events.
Each of the Tacoma police officers under suspicion refused to be interviewed by investigators from the state patrol, and Farina, through a union lawyer, invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
“We believe that this incident implicates more than just the officers in this case, but an entire system in Tacoma and Pierce County,” Bible said.
Ferguson’s office criticized the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department for failing to abide by Initiative 940, police accountability reforms that took effect last January that require greater independence and transparency in police investigations of fatal uses of force. The Attorney General initiated a compliance review of more than 20 other deaths and serious injuries at the hands of law enforcement in Washington State during the first half of this year. That effort is ongoing.
Ellis’ name was frequently invoked during protests this summer following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. His death has inspired proposed legislation to strengthen police accountability and was a factor in Pierce County Council supporting a designated tax for mental health care that it had repeatedly rejected.