In policing, “the thin blue line” stands for the duty of officers to preserve order.
But when unprecedented criminal charges were filed in May against three Tacoma officers in the on-duty killing of Manuel Ellis, the line thickened, leaving police and their supporters warily eyeing members of the Ellis family and their supporters from across a growing gap.
On the law enforcement side of the line, the day charges were announced, 105 of 353 active Tacoma police officers took the day off, nearly a third more than is normal for a Thursday.
Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer registered his displeasure with a snarky social media post. The owner of a Tacoma construction company posted $300,000 bail for the officers, in a show of support.
On the other side of the line, the charges provided a seminal moment for a decades-overdue conversation about Tacoma police’s treatment of Black Tacoma residents, who viewed efforts to minimize the officers’ actions as a barrier to progress. The Ellis family and their supporters weren’t going to sit by quietly.
Under pressure, the city of Tacoma canceled a contract with a religious organization that solicited funds for the charged officers’ families.
Tensions escalated online, widening the divide and making people on both sides increasingly fearful. A school security officer who supports the officers felt worried enough to seek a temporary restraining order against Ellis’ sister and a key eyewitness in the case.
Ellis’ sister, Monèt Carter-Mixon, had her own reasons for concern. In the days after the announcement, she awoke to find her car’s tires flattened and brakes damaged, spurring Carter-Mixon, who is pregnant, and her five children to move into a hotel for the next month.
Her landlord shooed away late-night prowlers, causing Carter-Mixon to wonder if she was a target.
“Now it’s not even just me. It’s getting weird for other people,” she said.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s decision to file charges upended expectations in Tacoma and Pierce County, where law enforcement has traditionally had broad deference. Ellis, 33, died from lack of oxygen after being tased, choked, punched, masked with a nylon hood, sat upon and hogtied while repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe on a south Tacoma street on March 3, 2020.
Supporters of law enforcement say they feel betrayed by a legal system that historically accepted officers’ explanations for use of deadly force, but which now threatens to lock up the three Tacoma officers for life.
The 105 officers who took the day off represents the highest single day of absences in April and May, according to a Seattle Times analysis of Tacoma police data for those two months.
“I have no idea why people take days off,” said Tacoma Police Department spokesperson Detective Wendy Haddow. She said the department was adequately staffed the day charges were announced.
But to Carter-Mixon, the unusual absences on May 27, the day charges were announced, reflects Tacoma officers’ widespread rejection of the charging decision. She wonders how that will color their policing.
Washington did not count the number of people killed by police until Ellis’ death — and last summer’s massive protests — inspired a change in the law.
And there were just three officers criminally charged with on-duty deaths in the past 40 years — until that number was matched in one day, when Tacoma officers Matthew Collins, 38, and Christopher “Shane” Burbank, 35, were charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, and Officer Timothy Rankine, 32, with first-degree manslaughter in Ellis’ death. No officer in Tacoma or Pierce County had been charged in at least 90 years.
The officers spent one night in jail before Josh Harris, owner of Integrity Construction Group in Tacoma, posted the $300,000 bail to free them, via a $30,000 payment to a bail bonds company.
Harris told KOMO News the charges were part of an “anti-cop agenda” and a “political witch hunt,” so he chose to “get off the couch, stand up and put people in their place who are pushing this agenda.” He did not respond to interview requests from The Times.
Harris said he was pained at the thought of the officers, all military veterans, spending Memorial Day weekend behind bars. “I know these officers on a professional level from patrolling our area where I live in Tacoma, and they’re just exemplary gentlemen and do their job well,” he said.
Harris didn’t mention a familial connection to Tacoma police: His brother, Ben Harris, is the department’s chaplain.
That fact was unearthed by a handful of community organizers with Tacoma Action Collective, which advocates for Tacoma’s Black community, and was amplified on social media feeds.
They also found Ben Harris’ solicitations on Facebook seeking cash donations for Collins, Burbank and Rankine, who have all pleaded not guilty and remain on paid administrative leave.
The Tacoma Pierce County Chaplaincy, the organization Ben Harris heads as executive director, was quickly on tenuous footing with the city of Tacoma.
Social media war
Emboldened by Josh Harris’ actions, other supporters posted on the Facebook page of Harris’ construction firm.
“Blessed are the peacemakers #backtheblue,” wrote Bridgette Lopez, a school security officer at Tacoma’s Stadium High School and spouse of a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy, citing a Bible verse that supporters of law enforcement have adopted as a catchphrase.
On the other side of the blue line, Ellis’ sister and her supporters zeroed in on Josh Harris’ construction company’s online presence, with the intent to steer potential customers away from it. That’s when Carter-Mixon found Lopez’s message.
One post led to another, and tensions intensified.
Carter-Mixon replied directly to Lopez’s post, saying that she didn’t find the officers’ actions peaceful on the night they killed her brother, and posted email addresses for Lopez’s supervisors, encouraging people to register complaints.
Sara McDowell, a key witness whose video recording of Ellis’ death factored heavily in the charges against the officers, joined in. She said she was eager to testify against the officers.
A flood of messages followed from others, some of them to Lopez’s supervisors, questioning whether she was fit to be employed policing a school.
A few days after the three officers were charged, Carter-Mixon awoke to find all four tires on her car flattened. A closer look by a mechanic found the brake cylinders had been damaged.
She didn’t call police, afraid to deal directly with officers.
“I’m not going to be relieved if I see a lot of blue and red sirens and officers saying, ‘We’re here to help,’” said Carter-Mixon, who is dealing with a difficult pregnancy exacerbated by her lupus. “I’m going to be even more apprehensive if they show up at my house.”
Carter-Mixon became even more alarmed when she learned that Lopez filed on June 3 for a restraining order against her and McDowell over their social media exchanges, seeking to bar all contact.
A Pierce County District Court judge immediately issued a temporary restraining order against Carter-Mixon and McDowell. If Lopez accused Carter-Mixon of violating the order, Tacoma police could come to her door.
At a June 23 hearing held over Zoom to determine if the order should remain in place, Lopez said she and her husband are “already on high alert” about public sentiment against officers. She said she’d heard secondhand threats that her critics were “going to come to where I work, Stadium [High School], and hurt me,” prompting her to change where she parked.
“I’m worried when I’m at Safeway because I live in the same community as these people and it’s a constant stress,” Lopez said. She said she feared Carter-Mixon could be predisposed to violence and might own guns or knives.
Carter-Mixon said the characterization stung, reminding her of the officers’ perception of her brother that led them to kill him.
At the hearing, Carter-Mixon’s lawyer, James Bible, argued that his client’s social media post was protected by the First Amendment. “This is a fundamental bedrock of our political system,” he said.
Lopez responded that she understands the First Amendment, but, “I also have a right to work without fear.”
Was Lopez aware that the officers were charged with killing Carter-Mixon’s brother? Bible asked. “If you say so,” she responded.
Pierce County District Judge Karla Buttorf chastised Lopez for evasive responses and interruptions, dismissed the restraining orders against Carter-Mixon and McDowell and questioned why Lopez singled them out over others who had commented more frequently and more harshly on her social media post.
“I understand you’re worried about your work, but it’s a public school and it’s their free speech to communicate with the school,” Buttorf told Lopez. “I don’t find that there’s any harassment going on. It is the engagement of social media.”
Lopez wrote in an email to The Times that she’s “praying for broken factors in the community … I wish no continued sadness, anger or frustration on the neighbors that my family lives among and strives to serve every day.”
“Conflict of values”
By mid-June, the attention Josh Harris had drawn by posting the officers’ bail placed his brother’s chaplaincy contract in jeopardy.
When the Tacoma Action Collective exposed the connection, Tacoma’s Civilian Police Accountability Committee, an advisory board of citizens, called Ben Harris to a remote hearing, where its members and citizens voiced displeasure that he’d solicited money for the officers and their families.
“I know that [Ben Harris] said they did not take a side, but when your family member bails out the ones that are charged with the murder of Manny Ellis, then you raised funds for those cops, it does seem like you have chosen a side,” Kristin Ang of Tacoma said at the hearing.
Ben Harris also acknowledged holding a pro-law-enforcement rally last year to offset Black Lives Matter protests, where demonstrators often invoked Ellis’ name and image to decry police violence.
“There’s a conflict of values,” Ben Harris said in response to the criticisms. “There are people who’ve reached out to me and made it very clear to me that anyone who wears a badge is not worthy of their time, and that’s being nice … There is nothing that I’m going to say that’s going to heal that wound immediately.”
Besides helping Tacoma police with death notifications, Ben Harris’ Tacoma-Pierce County Chaplaincy also was paid about $60,000 for the first six months of 2021 to train lay community members to assist citizens facing traumatic experiences — families like Ellis’.
The initiative was launched in response to a 2016 incident when a Black man whose brother was slain was treated like a suspect by police when he arrived on scene.
Ben Harris’ actions alienated some of Tacoma’s Black community, members of the accountability committee said, by erecting a barrier to recruiting and to training Black people to help others cope with trauma.
Committee member Kiara Daniels, who is Black, told Ben Harris that she’d be reluctant “to send a person of color to you to carry out this program.” She said his stance seemed oblivious to the reasons Black Tacomans have protested against the way they’re policed.
“People are being murdered by our police,” she said. “We don’t feel safe. That’s not a petty issue. These are real things that are happening.”
The next morning, the city announced it was terminating the chaplaincy group’s contract for trauma response training and seeking a replacement. Ben Harris did not respond to interview requests. Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards was unavailable to comment about the developments since the officers’ arrests when contacted by The Times.
The officers remain out on bail, with a trial date pending. The Tacoma Police Department’s internal investigation of whether Collins, Burbank and Rankine violated policy is also pending, with interviews of the three officers scheduled last week, the department said.
Carter-Mixon doesn’t celebrate the small victories, like the chaplaincy’s contract termination. She’s holding out for convictions, while feeling tension and animus against her from across the thin blue line.
“I’m more scared now than I was before [charges were filed], because now the officers and their supporters are desperate,” Carter-Mixon said. “I won’t stop and I won’t shut up.”
KNKX’s Kari Plog contributed to this report.