Following a mishandled investigation into the death of 33-year-old Manuel Ellis while in Tacoma police custody, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Tuesday his office will review at least 30 investigations of police use of deadly force to ensure they followed a new state law that took effect this year.
That’s how many times police in Washington state have used force in 2020 that resulted in death or serious injury to suspects, according to the attorney general’s office. Each incident was supposed to be investigated —independently, free of conflicts of interest and unnecessary secrecy about officers’ actions — under Initiative 940, a measure passed in 2018 that called for more public transparency and accountability to victims’ families.
Ellis died March 3 after police encountered him in south Tacoma, allegedly bothering drivers by approaching their cars while they were stopped at an intersection. The Pierce County Medical Examiner determined Ellis died of oxygen deprivation due to physical restraint and ruled his death a homicide, and listed methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as contributing factors.
Police claim Ellis charged an officer as he got out of a patrol cruiser and slammed him to the ground. But an eyewitness video showed officers pummeling Ellis moments after they met and captured Ellis’ haunting last words: “I can’t breathe, sir!”
Under I-940, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office took over the investigation and was in charge of it for three months. But on the eve of sending the finished investigation to the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office acknowledged a deputy was present as police detained Ellis. That would be considered a conflict of interest under I-940, requiring the sheriff to step aside.
Since the sheriff’s department stepped back, the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the attorney general have said the deputy present may actually have participated in detaining Ellis. Together, these facts call into question why the sheriff’s department didn’t step aside sooner.
Gov. Jay Inslee last week handed the investigation to the Washington State Patrol, which will report its findings to the attorney general’s office to decide whether any of the four Tacoma police officers involved with detaining Ellis will face criminal charges.
“Pierce County’s admitted failure to comply with the requirements of I-940 is deeply troubling,” Ferguson said in a news release. “I hope our inquiry will find that law enforcement agencies across the state, unlike Pierce County, are following the law that requires independent, transparent investigations into the use of deadly force.”
The Pierce County sheriff has yet to determine whether the department violated I-940, spokesman Ed Troyer said last week.
But a Seattle Times review of the sheriff’s department’s handling of the investigation into Ellis’ death published on Sunday found breaches of the new law, including the fact that it never assigned a liaison to Ellis’ family, failed to provide community updates and neglected to add representatives who were not with law enforcement to the investigation to serve in an accountability role.
Besides the investigation into Ellis’ death, Ferguson said his office so far hasn’t identified any other lethal force investigations that violated I-940, but the planned review he announced Tuesday could identify others. Ferguson said his office will release a report once its reviews of the investigations are complete.
According to the attorney general’s office, 21 people have died this year in Washington state during interactions with law enforcement. Five of them, including Ellis, were unarmed, and are among the cases being reviewed in the attorney general’s probe.
Four of the people killed by police so far this year were Black, four were white, two were Hispanic and two were Asian. Identities and demographic details of the 11 others who died after police used force against them were not included in the attorney general’s list, which it compiled from news reports.
The investigations under review include a three-day span at the beginning of May when Black people died after being subjected to force by police departments: The shooting deaths of Said Joquin, 26, in Lakewood and 24-year-old Shaun Lee Fuhr in Seattle; and 33-year-old Tiffany Eubanks’ death at a hospital hours after being handcuffed and restrained by Yakima police.
Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, said I-940 has a hole in its accountability provisions: the lack of a requirement for departments statewide to collect and analyze police use of force.
She recommended those changes and measures to ensure the public has an avenue to object to the way an investigation was conducted, and has been discussing a possible fix with lawmakers for the next legislative session.
In a separate action on Monday, Inslee seated a task force whose members include relatives of people killed by police to recommend legislation on investigations of police use of lethal force.
Currently, Washington law does not require law enforcement agencies to report uses of deadly force. Ferguson’s office is also preparing a new report that includes recommendations on how to collect and report data on use of deadly force by Washington’s more than 200 law enforcement agencies. The office will release the report by July 1.