The family of Manuel Ellis has reached a tentative $4 million settlement agreement with Pierce County in a lawsuit that accused deputies of standing by while Tacoma police officers fatally restrained Ellis, even as he repeatedly screamed he could not breathe.
The settlement, which is subject to final approval by the Pierce County Council, is only part of the potential liability in Ellis’ death. Ellis’ family continues to pursue a federal lawsuit against the city of Tacoma, whose officers played larger roles than deputies in the fatal encounter.
Ellis, 33, died of oxygen deprivation in March 2020 after a succession of Tacoma police officers and one Pierce County deputy held him down. Ellis was shocked with a stun gun, beaten, choked and hogtied by police before dying of hypoxia. The county medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide.
Criminal charges are pending against three Tacoma officers, although Ellis’ sister Monet Carter-Mixon noted that all the Tacoma officers and Pierce County deputies involved in Ellis’ death remain employed.
“I don’t see this as necessarily a win,” Carter-Mixon said. “So it’s not over yet in my eyes. I don’t think there’s any amount of financial compensation that can remedy the situation or make anyone feel better about my brother not being here.”
Adam Faber, a spokesperson for the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, confirmed the tentative settlement for $4,010,000 on Monday. The Pierce County Council is expected to review the settlement in executive session on Tuesday, with a public announcement expected at the council’s 3 p.m. meeting, Faber said.
“We recognize that the family and friends of Manuel Ellis are grieving, and we hope this settlement will give them some measure of closure,” said Faber.
Since 2017, Pierce County has paid out roughly $14 million in settlements involving Sheriff’s Department shootings, negligence or failure to act. Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Sgt. Darren Moss referred questions about the settlement to the county prosecutor’s office and declined further comment.
Ellis’ family served Tacoma with a $30 million tort claim before filing the federal suit, which alleges the police department violated Ellis’ civil rights. Six Tacoma police officers are individually named as defendants.
Officers from several law enforcement agencies were present during Ellis’ final minutes alive. Pierce County was named in the lawsuit because one of its deputies, Gary Sanders, helped restrain Ellis and another, Lt. Anthony Messineo, failed to intervene when he saw Ellis in medical distress under the officers’ weight.
“From our perspective, when you respond to a specific scene as law enforcement, you’re required to do the job you’re sent there to do — protect and serve,” James Bible, an attorney for the Ellis family, said in a phone interview. “When you see someone committing a murder, it’s your job to intervene.”
Three Tacoma police officers — Matthew Collins, Christopher “Shane” Burbank and Timothy Rankine — have been charged with felonies, including murder and manslaughter, in connection with Ellis’ death, the single largest prosecution of police in state history. Collins, Burbank and Rankine have pleaded not guilty, are awaiting trial and remain on paid leave more than two years after Ellis’ death.
Collins and Burbank encountered Ellis at an intersection on the southern edge of Tacoma on March 3, 2020. They claim to have watched Ellis hassling a car as it passed through the intersection. Collins told investigators after a brief conversation Ellis became aggressive and at one point lifted all 230 pounds of him and his equipment off the ground before hurling Collins “like a rag doll,” claims that Burbank did not substantiate.
However, six eyewitnesses — some with video to support their statements — contradict the officers’ claims that Ellis was behaving aggressively before Collins and Burbank took him to the ground with chokeholds and a Taser, according to an investigation by the Washington State Patrol.
Ellis never stood again. As more officers arrived, Ellis’ hands and feet were shackled and hogtied together behind his back. The Tacoma officers and Sanders took turns restraining Ellis until he was in medical distress and ultimately died in the intersection, according to the WSP investigation. Sanders and Messineo were not charged criminally for Ellis’ death, and neither was suspended while it was investigated.
But the presence of Sanders, the Pierce County deputy, figured prominently as the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department investigated Ellis’ death.
The investigation had lingered more than three months when, the night before the Sheriff’s office was to present its investigation to prosecutors, investigators acknowledged that Sanders helped restrain Ellis.
Gov. Jay Inslee determined that conflict of interest required him to strip the Pierce County Sheriff of the investigation and assign it to the Washington State Patrol. The Attorney General’s Office, rather than Pierce County’s prosecuting attorney, filed the criminal charges.
The Ellis family’s lawsuit alleged that statements immediately after his death by Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Ed Troyer — who is now sheriff — erroneously denied Tacoma officers had choked or knelt on Ellis, facts that eyewitnesses and their videos refuted.
In their lawsuit, lawyers for Ellis’ family characterized the Sheriff’s Department as a haven for misbehaving cops where “law enforcement officers are aware that they are unlikely to receive any discipline when they use deadly force against a human being.” It is not yet clear whether the tentative settlement includes any admission of wrongdoing by the county.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department was prepared to conclude its investigation without ever finding the eyewitnesses whose videos are now critical to the prosecution of the officers. Carter-Mixon, Ellis’ sister, set out looking for witnesses during the 2020 protests in Tacoma over police use of force. There, she found the first eyewitness to come forward with a video contradicting law enforcement’s version of events.
“This settlement holds the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department accountable for the actions, the inactions and the misrepresentations of its employees,” Bible said. “The harsh reality is, if it wasn’t for dedicated social justice activists and Monet, they would have all been effectively covered up by the Sheriff’s Department.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this story.