The quest for justice in the death of Manuel Ellis while in the custody of Tacoma police highlights the need for police reform throughout Washington. It also illuminates the difficulty in enacting such reform.
Criminal charges were filed last week against three officers — 15 months after Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, was killed. During that time, multiple agencies bungled investigations into how Ellis died, with inquiries languishing even as protests sparked by video of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis took place in cities across the country.
Gov. Jay Inslee rightly ordered the Washington State Patrol to take over the Ellis case last year. Findings were delivered to the office of Attorney General Bob Ferguson in November, and Ferguson opted to expand the investigation.
Last week, the state charged two officers with second-degree murder and another with first-degree manslaughter. According to court documents, Ellis died during “felonious assault and/or unlawful imprisonment,” and the officers “tackled and struck Ellis multiple times, applied an LVNR (Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint) on Ellis, and shot him with a Taser three times, all without justification.” They also placed him in “hogtie restraints” and “failed to render or call for urgent medical aid.”
Remarkably, the officers continue to be paid by the Tacoma Police Department, where officials say they are conducting an internal investigation. Meanwhile, the Tacoma police union issued a press release calling the charges a “politically motivated witch hunt” and criticizing the treatment of “fine public servants.”
Such intransigence from police unions represents one of the roadblocks to necessary reform. The Legislature this year approved several measures aimed at making law enforcement officers more accountable to the public they are sworn to protect and serve, but lawmakers avoided unwinding the layers of protection won by officers through collective bargaining.
In addition to a public that has difficulty achieving justice for excessive use of force, officers who truly are “fine public servants” are the losers in such a bargain. Egregious actions of a handful of officers is enough to besmirch them all, stoking mistrust among the public that makes their jobs more difficult.
While charges against the officers will help answer questions about criminal liability, several other questions linger.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office inappropriately investigated the case for three months even though a sergeant and lieutenant were present when Ellis died. In the process, that office violated Initiative 940, which passed with 60 percent of the vote in 2018 (in Clark County it passed with 54 percent) and set a statewide requirement for independent investigations into police killings.
And Ferguson announced the charges last week through a press release rather than a press conference in which additional questions could be asked. Three other officers who helped subdue Ellis have not been charged, and the press release said the “investigation remains ongoing.”
All of this is pertinent in Clark County, where the fatal police shooting of a Black man in October has been investigated by an outside agency, with the findings now under review by officials in Pierce County. Given the recent charges against Tacoma officers, that review will be subject to much public scrutiny. Another fatal shooting of a Black man in February also is under review.
A fair trial is needed to answer questions in the death of Manuel Ellis. But police accountability must extend far beyond a single incident.