The Washington State Patrol will begin a new investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis, who was killed in March as he was detained by Tacoma police, Gov. Jay Inslee announced.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office had been investigating the death, but that review was abruptly halted last week, after it was discovered that sheriff’s deputies were on the scene when Ellis was killed. Initiative 940, passed by voters in 2018, prevents police agencies from investigating themselves. The discovery, by the sheriff’s office, came more than three months after Ellis was killed.
“That created an incurable conflict and led the governor to order the state patrol investigation,” Inslee’s office wrote in a news release.
James Bible, attorney for Ellis’ family, cited the police killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta last week. The officer who killed Brooks was charged with murder on Wednesday.
“If the events that lead to the death of Manuel Ellis occurred in Georgia, the officers would already be charged with murder. The Tacoma Police Chief would already have stepped down and the officers would be fired,” Bible wrote on Facebook.
He accused Tacoma and Pierce County authorities of trying to “discredit” the medical examiner who ruled Ellis’ death a homicide and accused the sheriff’s office of “completely” violating I-940.
“Do Black Lives Matter in Washington State?” Bible wrote. “Is it just a slogan here that liberals like to say and conservatives don’t like to hear?”
Inslee said the State Patrol would immediately begin collecting records from the sheriff’s office and will form an investigative team and begin work by the end of next week. Once it completes its investigation, Attorney General Bob Ferguson will decide on any possible criminal charges against the officers involved, Inslee said.
“This is the best way to give the Ellis family and the entire community the thorough, fair and independent investigation this case demands,” Inslee said. “We must all demand that level of accountability.”
When Inslee announced last week that there would be a new, independent investigation, it was unclear who would conduct it. There was also a State Patrol trooper on the scene after Ellis was handcuffed, the governor’s office said.
“The trooper has since responded to questions from the state patrol and the attorney general’s office,” Inslee’s office said. “His activities were limited and the patrol will exclude him and others from the area from any part of the investigation.”
Ellis was killed March 3 while being arrested and restrained by Tacoma police. Three videos of the killing have since emerged. In one, Ellis can be seen falling on his back, struggling with officers on top of him. “Oh my God, stop hitting him, just arrest him,” the woman filming the video yells.
Another video, released this week, shows Ellis and an officer on the ground, as the officer grabs Ellis from behind and puts his arm around his neck. A second officer, standing above, appears to use a Taser on Ellis.
As Ellis’ legs flail, both officers move to subdue him. One officer appears to kneel with one knee on Ellis.
The county medical examiner ruled the case a homicide, concluding that Ellis died from a lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. The medical examiner’s report also listed methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as factors in his death.
Inslee on Wednesday said it appeared that the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office did not follow the provisions of I-940, which requires community members to assist in reviewing members of the investigative team reviewing the death of someone in police custody. It also requires a family liaison to the investigative team.
“Our announcement today focuses on thoroughly investigating what happened late at night on March 3,” Inslee said. “But I believe the sheriff’s office needs to answer serious questions about what happened, and did not happen, in the months since then.”
A sheriff’s office spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.