Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Friday that his office will decide — now that a Washington State Patrol investigation is complete — whether criminal charges will be filed in connection with the death of Manuel Ellis, 33, who died after Tacoma police cinched off his airway during an encounter as he walked home from a convenience store.
Ferguson gave no estimate of when that decision could be made. With its investigation, the State Patrol did not offer a recommendation on charging any of the officers who restrained Ellis on the night he died. The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office earlier ruled Ellis’ death a homicide.
Contradictions of police accounts, conflicts of interest during an initial investigation and the timing of Ellis’ death — mere weeks before George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis triggered a nationwide reckoning on race and policing — made Ellis’ name synonymous with pleas for justice at protests in the Pacific Northwest. It has drawn attention to gaps in Washington’s new police accountability law and inspired calls for new legislation aimed at reducing deaths at the hands of law enforcement.
Early statements from law enforcement that cast Ellis, who was Black, as the aggressor on the night he died have been contradicted by the accounts of eyewitnesses. Two eyewitnesses who shot video of parts of the March 3 fatal interaction between Ellis and police have come forward with identical stories. They say police attacked Ellis without provocation. Law enforcement said no one placed knees on Ellis’ neck or head, but one witness video depicts that.
The State Patrol interviewed those witnesses, Sara McDowell and Samuel Cowden, according to the Ellis family’s lawyer, James Bible, who said he observed the interviews. That step alone made the State Patrol’s probe more complete than the original investigation, handled by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, Bible said.
“This would be a blatant miscarriage of justice if the officers involved in killing Manuel Ellis were not charged with murder,” Bible said.
Four Tacoma officers are on paid home leave pending the result of the investigation: Matthew Collins, 37, and Christopher Burbank, 34, who are white; Masyih Ford, 28, who is Black; and Timothy Rankine, 31, who is Asian American.
Lawyers for the officers did not immediately return messages Friday seeking comment. They previously released a statement urging the public to withhold judgment until the investigation is complete.
A long-undisclosed conflict of interest marred the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation into Ellis’ death. One of its deputies responded to the scene on the night Ellis died and may have participated in restraining him at some point. The sheriff’s office did not make this fact known to the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office until June 9, when it was sent to present its findings to the prosecutor in order to inform a charging decision. At the conclusion of its investigation, the Sheriff’s Department still hadn’t spoken with the eyewitnesses who contradicted police accounts.
Gov. Jay Inslee quickly intervened and handed the investigation to the State Patrol and charging authority to the attorney general.
Ferguson initiated a review of 20 other investigations into deaths and serious injuries caused by police in Washington during the first half of this year for compliance with Initiative 940. The law, which took effect this year, aimed to add credibility to investigations into police by assuring that they were done independently.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s handling of the Ellis case was held up as an example of how not to comply with the new law aimed at building trust in the way police are policed.
In a written statement Friday, Ferguson said he appointed an internal review team made up of prosecutors, a representative of his office’s Civil Rights Division and two retired judges “to assist in this important decision.”
He also said his office is reaching out to the Ellis family to schedule a meeting.
“The law imposes no deadline or timeline for this review,” Ferguson said in the statement. A target date for making a decision about whether the officers will be charged has not been established, said Brionna Aho, spokesperson for Ferguson’s office.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, who has unsuccessfully called for the officers’ firing, also issued a statement Friday.
“We do not need the outcomes of the Attorney General’s review to know that the systems built up around policing have disparate outcomes not just in Tacoma but across the nation,” she said.