Protesters march in Tacoma after video shows encounter between Manuel Ellis and police

TACOMA -- Members of the Tacoma community marched in the streets Friday, calling for justice in the death of Manuel Ellis. The 33-year-old died while in Tacoma Police custody March 3rd. In early June, medical examiners ruled his death a homicide.

Demonstrators held a peaceful protest outside of Pierce County Superior Court then marched to Wright Park. A demonstration also occurred at the University of Washington-Tacoma campus.

Cellphone video released Thursday night provided a new glimpse of what happened to Ellis that fateful night. The video shows two police officers on top of someone believed to be Ellis. Also heard in the video are officers repeatedly saying, “put your hands behind your back,” while a person, believed to be Ellis, is on the ground.

The video sparked a fiery response from Tacoma’s mayor Victoria Woodards during an address to the public late Thursday night.

“The officers that committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Woodards. “As I watched that video, I became even more enraged and angry and disappointed.”

The mayor’s call to action prompted a special virtual meeting, Friday, with the city council. The meeting resulted in a unanimous vote to send a letter to Governor Jay Inslee requesting the state for an independent investigation on the case.

“This is just the beginning of a long fight and path towards the type of reforms that we need to have in order to restore our faith and trust in government to be the partner for our citizens,” said city council member Robert Thoms. “Nothing’s more important than making sure that you feel like you’re safe in your own home, in your own community in your own skin. That starts with having people that you trust serving you.”

The Tacoma Police Management Association said it welcomes an independent investigation. The group’s president, Frank Krause, however, is condemning Woodards’ demand. In a written statement, Krause said in part, “Mayor Woodards’ inflammatory language calling the officers criminals and calling for their prosecution before the incident is reviewed by the prosecutor’s office does not suit the office of the mayor.”

The Tacoma Police Union gave a much more direct response to Woodards’ demand, saying in a written statement she has “misplaced rage.” The union’s president, Chris Tracy, wrote in part, “This is not the time to sacrifice dedicated public servants at the altar of public sentiment, especially when that sentiment is almost wholly fueled by the uninformed anger of a theatrical politician.”

“I can’t breathe,” are the last words spoken from Ellis, heard on a recording of a police radio. Those words still haunt his family.

“As a mother, you can never imagine what it’s like to bury your son. To look down in his eyes. My heart hurt. I cried for two months and 10 days every day, all day,” said Marcia Carter, Ellis’ mother.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office is the investigating agency in this case. Detective Ed Troyer explained what led up to the encounter between Ellis and four Tacoma police officers on March 3.

“He was having distress in the intersection, they asked him if he was alright and needed help. He walked up to the Tacoma Police Officers and said, I have warrants, I need to talk. As soon as the police officer got out of the car, he assaulted one of them and slam dunked him into the ground,” said Troyer.

The detective said officers placed handcuffs on Ellis and restrained him on the ground.

“There was no heads on knees. There was no cutting off of circulation. None of that. He was handcuffed he was talking. He was breathing. Then throughout the process, he had trouble breathing and he told people, I can’t breathe. They put him on his side and called for medical aid,” said Troyer.

Minutes after paramedics were called, Ellis died. Now three months later, medical examiners ruled his death a homicide. Medical examiners also found Ellis had an existing heart condition. It was determined he died after going into respiratory arrest due to being restrained.

“Now it is up to the people to force that level of accountability on police departments in Pierce County, on police departments in Tacoma because we need justice—not just in some places, we need justice everywhere,” said James Bible, the Ellis family’s attorney.

As the community marched the streets of Tacoma in Ellis’ honor, Friday, they challenged local law enforcement to accept responsibility and be transparent.

“They need to be held accountable to the same standards that the police were in Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered because we have a George Floyd right now. And justice hasn’t been given to him yet,” said Taylor, a participant in the peaceful protest.

Mayor Woodards said she is directing the city manager to allocate funds for police body cameras immediately. In Friday’s special meeting she also told city council members that she was working with the governor on how officer-involved shootings are investigated statewide.