Attorney General to review 30 police deadly force probes for conflicts

Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Tuesday his office will review at least 30 investigations of police use of deadly force to ensure they followed a new state law in the wake of the questionable handling of an investigation into the death of 33-year-old Manuel Ellis while in Tacoma police custody.

Police in Washington state have used force in 2020 at least 30 times that resulted in death or serious injury to suspects, according to the attorney general’s office. Each incident was supposed to be investigated —independently, free of conflicts of interest and unnecessary secrecy about officers’ actions — under Initiative 940, a measure passed in 2018 that called for more public transparency and accountability to victims’ families.

Ellis died March 3 after police encountered him in south Tacoma, allegedly bothering drivers by approaching their cars, The Seattle Times reported. The Pierce County Medical Examiner determined Ellis died of oxygen deprivation due to physical restraint, ruled his death a homicide, and listed methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as contributing factors.

Police claim Ellis charged an officer as he got out of a patrol cruiser and slammed him to the ground. But an eyewitness video showed officers pummeling Ellis moments after they met and captured Ellis’ haunting last words: “I can’t breathe, sir!”

Under I-940, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office handled the investigation but only recently the Sheriff’s Office acknowledged a deputy was present as police detained Ellis. That would be considered a conflict of interest under I-940, requiring the sheriff to step aside.

The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the attorney general have said the deputy present may actually have participated in detaining Ellis. Together, the facts call into question why the sheriff’s department didn’t step aside sooner.

Gov. Jay Inslee last week ordered the Washington State Patrol to investigate the death. The agency will report its findings to the attorney general’s office to decide whether any of the officers involved with detaining Ellis will face criminal charges.

The Pierce County sheriff has yet to determine whether the department violated I-940, spokesman Ed Troyer said last week.

But Brionna Aho, an AG spokesperson, said the office has determined that two citizens were invited “to the (sheriff’s investigation conclusion) briefing less than a week before it was scheduled to take place instead of being appointed early in the process as ‘non-law enforcement community representatives,’ under I-940’s independent investigation criteria.”

The Attorney General’s Office also questions the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s compliance with requirements to publicly identify everyone conducting the investigation, and to assign a liaison to Ellis’s family as a conduit for communication with investigators.