Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered a new, independent investigation into the killing of Manuel Ellis by Tacoma police, after new revelations emerged that Pierce County sheriff’s deputies and a Washington State Patrol trooper were at the scene when police detained and ultimately killed Ellis on March 3.
But it’s unclear who will investigate the killing and who will decide whether officers will be charged.
“I have become convinced that the Pierce County sheriff should not complete the investigation of the death of Manuel Ellis and the county prosecutor should not review the investigation and make charging decisions,” Inslee said in a statement.
At a Wednesday news conference, he said decisions on who will investigate and who will make a charging decision could come in “hours or days.”
Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett, shortly before Inslee’s announcement, said she would “step back from the case.”
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department had been nearing the end of its investigation, and an investigative briefing with the prosecuting attorney had been scheduled for Wednesday. It was canceled after the new revelations.
“The county prosecutor believes that she has an irreconcilable conflict that would preclude her office from handling this case,” Inslee said.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he learned only Tuesday night that sheriff’s deputies were present when Ellis died. He said the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department did not comply with Initiative 940, Washington’s newly implemented law governing police killings.
“It is disturbing that the Pierce County sheriff’s office is only now, after more than three months, revealing its involvement,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Pierce County must answer for its failure to comply with I-940, issue an apology to the Ellis family and immediately implement reforms to ensure investigations comply with the law.”
“I don’t know why this was not revealed,” Inslee said. “I must say, it’s surprising to me.”
The presence of sheriff’s deputies at the scene of Ellis’ death was discussed during a briefing with Pierce County prosecutors on Tuesday, Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer said.
“We recognize and we appreciate that the extent of [the Sheriff’s Department’s] involvement is now part of this investigation,” he said. “In order to avoid even an appearance that we would not be independent, we have called this to the attention of the prosecutor.”
Troyer said the place where Ellis encountered police is mere yards from Tacoma city limits, where the Police Department’s jurisdiction ends and the sheriff’s begins. He said a lone deputy arrived on the scene soon after the four police officers who responded. More deputies arrived later and took on traffic control duties while medics unsuccessfully administered aid to Ellis, Troyer said.
Only after reviewing police interviews from the night of Ellis’ death did the first deputy’s presence come to the attention of the sheriff’s department, Troyer said.
“It was in a police report that he was interviewed by detectives that night,” he said. “As we were reviewing reports, it was discovered a deputy was there. At this point we don’t know if he’s a witness or what they want to do with him.”
Troyer described the deputy’s role at the scene as “minimal,” but nonetheless, the Sheriff’s Department supports the decision to pursue a more independent investigation and plans to cooperate with the as-yet-unnamed agency that will lead it.
The Sheriff’s Department, before stepping aside, made no recommendation regarding whether the officers who responded to Ellis’ call should be criminally charged, Troyer said.
Ellis was killed March 3 while being arrested and restrained by Tacoma police. In a video shot by a bystander that became public last week, 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.
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.
On Tuesday, before the new revelations, Monet Carter-Mixon, Ellis’ sister, said she didn’t want any police involved in the investigation of her brother’s killing.
“My brother was killed on March 3. It’s now June 9,” Carter-Mixon said. “Any type of person with a badge should not be investigating what happened with my brother because they’ve displayed, both publicly and not, that they’re going to back the badge and they’re going to protect each other.”
Robnett again on Wednesday asked Ferguson to take over the case. She had offered Ferguson the power of “concurrent jurisdiction” on Monday. But Ferguson demurred, saying his office would review the case after Robnett made a decision on whether to charge officers.
He said Monday that the independence of his review would be lost if he and Robnett were working on the case at the same time.
“The state has to take over the case,” the Tacoma Action Collective, a grassroots organization that has led the charge to bring awareness to the case, said on Facebook. “This is why Manny’s family demands an independent investigation.”
Inslee on Wednesday apologized to Ellis’ family, saying they “now will have to wait longer for the fair and thorough investigation this case demands and which they deserve.”