Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday pledged an independent state review of the death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man killed in March while he was being arrested and restrained by Tacoma police, one day after Tacoma’s mayor directed City Manager Elizabeth Pauli to fire the four police officers involved in the incident.
“The officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Mayor Victoria Woodards said in a statement aired live on Tacoma TV and Facebook. “I am demanding tonight that the Pierce County Sheriff review and confirm every action taken by each officer.”
She continued, “I demand that the sheriff provide details of the actions of each officer on the scene. And I am then directing the city manager to fire each officer involved.”
The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Ellis’ March 3 death a homicide and determined the cause of death was lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. The News Tribune learned the information and reported on it earlier this week. Methamphetamine intoxication and a heart disease were contributing factors.
Inslee, in a news release Friday evening, said he has directed the State Patrol to review the county sheriff’s investigation after it is completed. Then, Inslee said, he will grant Attorney General Bob Ferguson authority to review the investigation to “determine whether any different charging decisions need to be made.
“Washingtonians deserve every assurance that investigations and charging decisions related to police shootings and deaths of people in police custody are handled with urgency, independence and commitment to justice,” Inslee said in the news release.
The officers involved originally were placed on paid administrative leave after the incident on March 3 and had since returned to duty. They were again put on leave Wednesday morning.
The Police Department identified the four officers involved in restraining Ellis, 33, as Christopher Burbank, 34; Matthew Collins, 37; Masyih Ford, 28; and Timothy Rankine, 31.
Burbank and Collins are white. Ford is Black. Rankine is Asian.
Police Chief Don Ramsdell could not immediately be reached for comment.
Tacoma police union representatives expressed concern about a decision regarding the officers’ fate being made before the investigation is complete and said they’re confident evidence will show the four officers did no wrong.
“Without any facts, without an investigation, without due process, and with less than a minute of short, blurry, partial Twitter videos in hand, the mayor passed judgment on the actions of four Tacoma Police Officers,” the union wrote in a statement. “She called them criminals. She called for their prosecution. She called for their termination from employment. And she called for all of these things without an ounce of evidence to support her words beyond misplaced rage.”
They denounced the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 in Minneapolis after a white officer pressed a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes, but said the cases are not the same.
“This is a time for leadership. This is a time for reason. This is a time for healing our Nation, our State, and our City. This is not the time to sacrifice dedicated public servants at the altar of public sentiment, especially when that sentiment is almost wholly fueled by the uninformed anger of a theatrical politician,” they wrote in the statement.
Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, said she considers the officers who restrained her brother to be killers and thinks firing them doesn’t go far enough.
“Murderers go to jail, they don’t get fired from their jobs,” she said.
The family’s attorney, James Bible, said he approves of the mayor’s sentiments.
“I think that it’s time to move forward and be in a space where the officers do get removed from the force, where criminal charges come forward and where the City of Tacoma law enforcement does move into the 20th century” with body cams and other technology, he said.
Woodards also demanded that the city manager allocate funding for body cameras immediately.
“We have waited way, way too long. And we have heard way too many excuses,” she said.
Videos of Ellis’ encounter with the officers surfaced Thursday from a woman who witnessed the incident near the intersection of South 96th Street and Ainsworth Avenue on March 3. In the videos, which only show part of the incident, Ellis is seen falling on his back as two officers move to restrain him.
Woodards apologized to the Ellis family and said she became “even more enraged and angered and disappointed” when she watched the video.
“Today, it stops in Tacoma,” she said. “In this moment, at this time, based on the information that I know today, the officers’ actions we saw on this video tonight only confirm that Manuel Ellis’ death was a homicide.”
Material from the (Tacoma) News Tribune was included in this report.