TACOMA — Manuel Ellis was still alive, and American streets had not yet congealed in mass protests against police brutality, when Washington voters resoundingly said in 2018 that they wanted law enforcement officers to be held more accountable when they kill.
For the first time, Initiative 940 assured police killings would be independently investigated, free of conflicts of interest. Victims’ families would have a direct pipeline to communicate with investigators, who would be required to present frequent progress updates to the public. Unprecedented scrutiny would bring overdue justice to the Black community, whose disproportionate suffering at the hands of police had helped inspire the initiative. The new law went into effect this year on Jan. 16.
The future looked promising, for almost two months.
Then on March 3, at the junction where 96th Street South and Ainsworth Avenue South form a perfect “T” on the southernmost edge of town, Ellis was killed by Tacoma police as the musician and father of two gasped words that have become achingly familiar: “I can’t breathe.”
Police accounts of what sparked the fatal counter have been disputed by an eyewitness. But even as the investigation continues, a Seattle Times examination of the case shows troubling weaknesses in the new police accountability law, undermining its objectives as Washington state and some of its municipalities push for still more police reforms.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which was tasked with independently investigating whether Tacoma police were justified or criminally liable in their use of lethal force, failed to disclose until nearly the end of its three-month investigation that one of its deputies had been involved in detaining Ellis, though the deputy was interviewed by detectives the night of the death.
Sheriff’s deputies had also been involved in an incident with Ellis six months earlier in which they Tased him and arrested him. That case was still open and being prosecuted by Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, raising more conflict-of-interest questions.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week the State Patrol will take over the investigation, even though some patrol personnel were present the night of Ellis’s death after he was already handcuffed. The state Attorney General’s Office will review the investigation’s findings and determine whether charges will be filed against anyone involved.
The Times’ review shows the Sheriff’s Department also neglected to provide Ellis’s family with a liaison to communicate with investigators. It failed to provide public updates on the investigation’s progress. And it did not appoint two citizens from outside law enforcement for oversight of the investigation. All are required by I-940.
Yet for all these problems, there is no mechanism in the new law to hold the department accountable for failing to comply with it.
Questions of compliance have not been limited to this case. At least two dozen other cases across the state await I-940-compliant investigations, according to Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
“We have identified at least 25 incidents that occurred this year and require a completely independent investigation under I-940,” Ferguson told The Times in an email. “Once we complete that work, which will be soon, we will determine appropriate next steps to ensure that the requirements of I-940, overwhelmingly approved by Washingtonians, are being followed in these important cases.”
The Attorney General’s Office would not release details of the 25 cases, such as which law enforcement agencies were involved and how many involved death as opposed to serious injuries. But the Attorney General’s Office acknowledged that the May 1 shooting death of 26-year-old Said Joquin by Lakewood Police is among them.
Detective Ed Troyer, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman, said it is “yet to be determined” whether the department complied with I-940 during its investigation of Ellis’s death.
The Pierce County medical examiner determined the cause of death as oxygen deprivation due to physical restraint, and ruled it a homicide. The examiner’s report also listed methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as factors.
The roles that each officer played on the night Ellis died and other detailed information contained in reports have been withheld from public disclosure by the Sheriff’s Department, citing the continuing investigation.
The Tacoma Police Department initially suspended the four officers known to have interacted with Ellis directly: Christopher Burbank, 34, Matthew Collins, 37, Masyih Ford, 28, and Timothy Rankine, 31. However, they were later reinstated and continued to work until June 3, when they were placed on leave again.
“If it was anyone else on the street, they would have been arrested and taken to jail,” Ellis’s sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, 29, said in a phone interview. “The investigation would have been over to the prosecuting attorney in a couple of days.”
‘Stop hitting him’
Carter-Mixon remembers her brother as outwardly happy-go-lucky and humorous, with a soft spot for mac ‘n’ cheese and candy, a knack for auto mechanics and a passion for making music.
Ellis maintained a relationship with his 2-year-old daughter, even after she moved across the state with her mother, Carter-Mixon said. And Ellis had recently learned he had a 10-year-old son and they were just getting to know each other.
But beneath his cheery exterior, Carter-Mixon said, Ellis wrestled with depression that he sometimes masked with methamphetamine. After a psychological break and arrest last September, Carter-Mixon says her brother had an epiphany.
He became heavily involved with the Last Days Ministries, playing drums with the church band on Sundays.
He moved in with Carter-Mixon, a single mother of five, and was inspired by watching her juggle work and her responsibilities at home — despite her own clinical depression — to seek mental health treatment voluntarily for the first time.
Early this year, Ellis moved into a sober-living home. He still visited his sister often, having dinner with her most nights. The night of his death, Ellis said he was going out for a snack at a convenience store, Carter-Mixon said.
Troyer has told news outlets Ellis was bothering vehicles, then came up to a patrol car and attacked an officer as he tried to step out around 11:20 p.m., slamming him to the ground.
A witness, Sara McDowell, who was in a car behind the officers, told The Times the officers appeared to try to get Ellis’ attention as they were stopped at a red light. He walked to the patrol car then turned around. But as Ellis started to walk away, one of the officers flung open his door, striking Ellis with it and knocking him down, said McDowell, who started recording the incident.
Within seconds, both officers were on him, one Tasing him and another punching him, her video shows. McDowell’s voice can be heard calling out to the officers: “Stop. Oh my God, stop hitting him. Just arrest him.”
In audio from a front-porch Ring camera nearby, Ellis can be heard pleading, “I can’t breathe sir, I can’t breathe.”
“He didn’t do anything to them,” McDowell said. “I didn’t know what to do. What can you do? You can’t call the cops on them.”
The next morning, Carter-Mixon awoke to a cheerful message on her phone from him, just small chitchat, unaware of what had transpired.
Ever since, she said, her family has been fighting unsuccessfully for information about what happened, only to be excluded from the process and left in the dark by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department while it controlled the investigation. She supports the governor’s decision to hand off the investigation to the State Patrol.
Troyer said the lead investigator was in regular contact with the family, which Carter-Mixon and the family’s lawyer, James Bible, deny.
“The world is watching, and they need to do what’s right, not what’s convenient for them,” Carter-Mixon said. “They need to take a step back and realize this is a human being who was brutally beaten for something that’s out of his control, and it’s caught on video. There is no playing politics with this.”
Conflicts of interest?
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department led the investigation focused on Tacoma police for three months, until June 10, when the department divulged that one of its deputies had been present at the scene of Ellis’s death, and that others arrived later and assisted with traffic control.
Troyer at the time of the announcement described the involvement of the first deputy to arrive as “minimal.” But that statement was called into question last week by the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office.
“On the afternoon of June 9, 2020, the Sheriff informed us that a Sheriff’s Deputy had responded to the scene and participated, in some degree, in the detention of Mr. Ellis,” Adam Faber, spokesman for the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office said in an email.
The I-940 law states, “The preservation of life should be at the heart of American policing,” and guarantees an “investigation completely independent of the involved agency.” The law spells out five fundamental principles aimed at “enhancing public trust” in investigations into police use of deadly force: “independence; transparency; communication; credible process; and credible investigators.”
The new law also means that prosecutors no longer have to prove officers acted with “evil intent” — or so-called “malice” — when considering whether to file criminal charges such as manslaughter, which had become a nearly impossible standard to prosecute, a 2015 Times investigation found.
“Pierce County Sheriff completely violated I-940,” said Bible, the Seattle attorney representing Ellis’s family, posted on his Facebook account Wednesday. “There was a member of the Sheriff’s department that was present and may have actually participated in restraining Manuel.”
And that’s just the beginning, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
For instance, the initiative requires the agency conducting an independent investigation to seat two community members from outside law enforcement early in the process to vet and help select which investigators from an agency will take part in the investigation, and to review media releases to assure victims of police violence are not being disparaged publicly by the investigating agency.
Brionna Aho, an AG spokeswoman, said the office has determined that two citizens were invited “to the [sheriff’s investigation conclusion] briefing less than a week before it was scheduled to take place. Neither understood that they had any formal role in the investigation. Neither were appointed ‘non-law enforcement community representatives,’ under I-940’s independent investigation criteria.”
The Attorney General’s Office also questions the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s compliance with other key provisions of the law, including requirements to publicly identify everyone conducting the investigation, and to assign a liaison to Ellis’s family as a conduit for communication with investigators.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department never provided a liaison, and dodged Ellis’s family’s numerous attempts to get information about the progress of the investigation from them, Carter-Mixon, said.
“They wouldn’t contact us. They wouldn’t return phone calls. They wouldn’t give us any information,” she said. “I even tried a couple of public records requests and they kept getting pushed off.”
Sue Rahr, former King County sheriff and currently executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, said agencies responsible for independent investigations statewide have struggled to comply with the provisions in I-940. And she’s heard complaints from citizens about deficiencies in the law.
“Members of the public don’t know where to go if they are not satisfied with the transparency of current investigations,” Rahr said. “There is no legal mechanism, an enforcement authority, to hold agencies accountable. There is no requirement or resources dedicated to collecting or analyzing data about the use of deadly force. There is no entity responsible for oversight. Members of the public must do the leg work of contacting elected officials to seek accountability.”
Rahr said she’s been in discussions with lawmakers about making changes to the law during the next legislative session in response to public complaints.
29 years to the day
Trying to show that the use of force was justified, lawyers representing the four suspended Tacoma police officers issued a news release June 11 spotlighting the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s arrest of Ellis last September on suspicion of attempted robbery at a time Ellis’s family said he was experiencing a mental breakdown. According to arrest documents, deputies said Ellis, who was unarmed, initially complied when they ordered him to lie down, but then got up and charged at them, causing them to Tase him.
The case was pending at the time of his death, and has since been dropped. But it raises more questions of whether the Sheriff’s Department and the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which was overseeing the case, had a conflict of interest from the start of the current inquiry into his death.
Faber, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said: “There is nothing about our prior prosecution of Mr. Ellis to preclude us from reviewing this use of force case.”
Part of I-940 prohibits the investigating department from disclosing whether someone killed by police had a criminal background. The Sheriff’s Department does not appear to have violated that rule, but it did make other statements during the investigation that served as fodder for the officers’ lawyers and in shaping public perception of the case. In their news release, attorneys Michael Staropoli and Steve Myers, quote a statement Troyer had made to reporters: “There were no knees on heads. There was no cutting off of circulation, none of that.”
“No one choked Mr. Ellis, not for 8 minutes and 45 seconds, not at all,” the officers’ lawyers said in the release, referencing the Minneapolis homicide of George Floyd, whose May 25 death after prolonged pressure on his neck from a police officer’s knee inspired a renewed national uprising against police brutality.
But McDowell’s video shows two officers handling Ellis roughly, one with a knee against his back during frantic moments that preceded another officer apparently firing a Taser at Ellis.
“These video clips do not present the ‘ah-ha’ moments that proponents wish to create,” said Staropoli. “Instead, they both corroborate and confirm much of what investigators are likely to already know about the encounter between police and Mr. Ellis.”
The News Tribune in Tacoma reported that the Police Department has said officers being investigated in connection with Ellis’s death have no prior history of use-of-force complaints.
Ellis died 29 years to the day after a witness videotaped Los Angeles police beating motorist Rodney King savagely with batons. It was a moment police-accountability advocates thought might lead to meaningful reform, only to see similar cases of police brutality caught on video time and again, most recently in Floyd’s death.
“A black person’s death has to be recorded for it to be believed that it was police brutality or murder,” Carter-Mixon said. “It’s not enough to have the facts. We literally need a recording for people to believe us, and that’s a little defeating, even though people are willing to finally talk about it. In our community, we’re tired of it. We need action to be taken so our people can be protected.”
Seattle Times visual journalist Lauren Frohne contributed to this report.