Attorney general deciding charges in death of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma

The Washington State Patrol has finished its investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who died while being restrained by Tacoma police officers.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Friday that his office will decide whether criminal charges will be filed in connection with the death.

Gov. Jay Inslee assigned the case to a special investigative team in June after it became public that a deputy from the previous lead investigation agency had responded to the scene where Ellis died on March 3. That Pierce County sheriff’s deputy had “participated in restraining” Ellis, Inslee said, amounting to “an incurable conflict.”

Ellis, 33, died after Tacoma police blocked his airway during an encounter as he walked home from a convenience store.

Ferguson gave no estimate of when charging decisions could be made, The Seattle Times reported. 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 has ruled the death a homicide, concluding that Ellis died from a lack of oxygen due to physical restraint.

Ellis’ death — just weeks before George Floyd died in Minneapolis after a white officer pressed a knee to his neck, triggering 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 legislation aimed at reducing deaths at the hands of law enforcement.

Manuel "Manny" Ellis

Early statements from law enforcement that cast Ellis as the aggressor on the night he died have been contradicted by eyewitnesses. Two eyewitnesses who made video of parts of the fatal interaction 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.

Four Tacoma officers are on paid home leave pending the result of the investigation: Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank, who are white; Masyih Ford, who is Black; and Timothy Rankine, who is Asian American.

Lawyers for the officers did not immediately return messages from the newspaper Friday seeking comment. They previously urged the public to withhold judgment until the investigation is complete.

In a written statement Friday, Ferguson said he appointed an internal review team of prosecutors, a representative of his office’s Civil Rights Division and two retired judges “to assist in this important decision.”

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, who has unsuccessfully called for the officers’ firing, also issued a statement.

“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.