Posted on July 20, 2020
Tacoma and Pierce County authorities have a lot to answer for regarding the in-custody death of Manuel Ellis. This extends even beyond the need for rigorous investigation of every officer at the scene where the man died.
Accountability for that tragedy has been delayed by still unexplained failures. Each government agency with a connection to Ellis’ death and the mishandled response should be fully transparent about its decisions and the consequences.
Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died late at night March 3 on a south Tacoma street after the city’s police confronted and restrained him. He told them he could not breathe, a doorbell video revealed. The four officers involved — two white, one Black and one Asian-American — were put on leave, then returned to work. In June, after video of the horrific death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody was circulating widely, a medical examiner’s report became public that found Ellis’ death a homicide, “hypoxia due to physical restraint.” The officers were again put on leave. The report said factors in Ellis’ death included methamphetamine in his blood, heart disease and a “spit hood” officers placed over his mouth.
These events require thorough investigation. In 2018, Washington state voters enacted strong police accountability measures by passing Initiative 940 with 59.6% of the statewide vote. That law requires independent investigation of deaths in police custody, among other long-needed reforms.
In this extraordinary moment of nationwide protest over police violence against Black Americans, the need for a meticulous — and transparent — response could not be stronger. Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards called for the officers to be fired and prosecuted. But because multiple agencies have failed the public trust, that potential outcome has been unjustifiably sandbagged.
The failures begin long ago. The Tacoma Police Department is now four years past its 2016 promise to equip officers with body cameras “within two to three years” as part of a package of reforms. The only footage that has surfaced comes from a doorbell camera and a passing motorist.
Chief Don Ramsdell declined to speak with this editorial board. He must explain the slow pace of change and why the officers were put back on duty. The leaders of Tacoma’s Citizen Police Advisory Committee also declined interviews.
Newly appointed Pierce County Medical Examiner Karen Cline-Parhamovich must say why the homicide determination completed May 11 — which her predecessor signed May 19 — was not delivered to law-enforcement officials until June. Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, who is retiring this year, must account for why he undertook the independent investigation despite his deputies being at the scene.
The Washington State Patrol needs to provide details about a trooper’s presence, which is being used as justification to keep state agencies clear of the investigation. Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson must fulfill their promise to select a truly independent new investigator.
Nothing less than full clarity will be acceptable. Yet another Black man died at the hands of police. Every official action around that must be explained.
The Seattle Times editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Brier Dudley, Jennifer Hemmingsen, Mark Higgins, Derrick Nunnally and William K. Blethen (emeritus).