Inslee says Washington State Patrol will take over Manuel Ellis death investigation

TACOMA, Wash. -- Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday said the Washington State Patrol would conduct a new independent investigation of the death of Manuel Ellis while in the custody of the Tacoma Police Department.

"This is the best way to give the Ellis family and the entire community the thorough, fair and independent investigation this case demands," Inslee said. "We must all demand that level of accountability."

Inslee has ordered WSP Chief John Batiste to gather evidence and records from the Pierce County Sheriff's Office.

"Our announcement today focuses on thoroughly investigating what happened late at night on March 3," Inslee said. "But I believe the sheriff’s office needs to answer serious questions about what happened, and did not happen, in the months since then."

The Pierce County Sheriff's Office had been in charge of the investigation because of Initiative 940, a measure passed by voters in 2018 that prohibits police agencies from investigating themselves.

Last week, Inslee first called for an independent investigation into Ellis' death after new information emerged that at least one Pierce County Sheriff’s deputy and a Washington State Patrol trooper were at the scene when he was detained and died on March 3.

But after three months, Inslee’s office said it’s their understanding the sheriff learned that one of his deputies participated in restraining Ellis.

Inslee said the state trooper’s actions were limited, that he has been interviewed and that he and other troopers from the Tacoma area will be excluded from the investigation.

Once the State Patrol’s investigation is finished, it will be sent to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office for review and any charging decisions.

"We’re cautiously optimistic that we actually will be a step closer to a truly authentic, independent investigation, but we won’t necessarily be there until we actually have an independent department within Washington State, similar to other states, that investigates police conduct," said James Bible, the Ellis family's attorney.

Washington State Patrol responded to the governor's announcement today in a statement:

"The Governor and Chief Batiste have been in frequent contact on this issue for the past week.  We were informed of the Governor's decision earlier today and will attend to this task with due diligence.
We recognize the unique environment surrounding this investigation and current national focus on the interactions of law enforcement with communities of color so it is essential that the processes we follow here are transparent, in compliance with all applicable laws, and lead to trusted findings. 
As we do in all investigations, we will work to provide justice for all involved with the steady, evenhanded, thoughtful, respectful, transparent, and fair process expected of us by all Washingtonians.
We will work as efficiently and effectively as possible but with that commitment to justice in mind, cannot sacrifice accuracy for expediency.
We are working with the Attorney General's office to ensure full compliance with I-940 including the naming of community members and family liaison and should be ready to commence the start of our investigation by no later than June 26th."

Ellis, 33, died while restrained by Tacoma police. The Pierce County medical examiner’s office ruled Ellis’ March 3 death a homicide caused by a lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. Methamphetamine intoxication and a heart disease were listed as contributing factors.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and Ellis’ family have called on those officers to be fired and arrested. The officers are on administrative leave.

The names of the deputy and trooper at the scene have not been released.