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The Ellis case and Washington's rocky path to independent investigations of police

Washington State’s Attorney General has taken the unprecedented step of filing murder and manslaughter charges against three Tacoma police officers, over the death of Manuel Ellis.

But champions for Ellis’ case were far from celebratory.

On Thursday, the Attorney General's Office charged Tacoma police officers Christopher Burbank and Mathew Collins with second degree murder as well as first degree manslaughter. Officer Timothy Rankine was charged with first degree manslaughter.

The officers turned themselves into the Washington State Patrol on Thursday and were expected to make their first appearances Friday in Pierce County Superior Court.

RELATED: 3 Tacoma officers charged in death of Manuel Ellis

But at a press conference Thursday, the attorney for Ellis’ family, James Bible, said those charges came about despite the efforts of city officials to stall. He added that “sham investigations” by law enforcement sought to blame Ellis for the encounter, rather than scrutinize the officers who restrained him with a Taser, neck restraint, hobbles, and a spit hood.

“So why the delay? The delay comes because police were investigating police, no matter what uniform they were wearing,” Bible said.

An "unusual step"

The investigation of Ellis' death was initially assigned to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office. But it was soon discovered that a sheriff's deputy was at the scene and helped restrain Ellis, creating a conflict of interest. The investigation was then turned over to the Washington State Patrol.

The case was then forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office for the charging determination. The AG’s office said it “interviewed new witnesses and identified and examined additional forensic evidence” that law enforcement investigations didn’t include. Bible said those charges “don’t let anyone else off the hook.”

“Justice has already walked out those doors,” Bible said. “It walked out those doors the moment Manuel’s soul left his body. So now we’re just trying to ease pain and develop a system of actual accountability.”

Still, University of Washington law professor Mary Fan said the case shows the ways Initiative 940 is leading to new approaches. Voters passed I-940 in 2018 to require independent investigations of deaths at the hands of law enforcement. Fan says having the state attorney general prosecute this case in Pierce County Superior Court is an unusual step.

“This case especially is showing how it can go beyond independent police agencies to independent prosecutorial review," she said.

“I think we have a hybrid approach here,” Fan said, “On the one hand recognizing and adhering to the right to trial by jury in the community context — the trial by one’s peers — and on the other hand, some changes and potential innovations in the actual investigation and charging decision process.”

She said Ferguson also helped increase public confidence by convening a multidisciplinary team to assist in the charging decision, including Judge Frank Cuthbertson and Judge Ronald Cox, both retired. Fan said prosecutors don’t usually open the process up like that.

“Customarily it’s just vested in the prosecutor’s office, and the complex calculus of factors that go in are not usually out in public view,” she said. “So to invite the community into this decision is, I think, a really interesting model.”

While the Tacoma police union condemned the charges against the officers as "politically motivated," Washington State Fraternal Order of Police President Marco Monteblanco said he is reserving judgement.

“We understand people are going to have different opinions on these decisions, but one of the things we support wholeheartedly is independent investigations and also the judicial process. We have to have faith in that process,” he said.

Monteblanco urged people to let the judicial process play out, “and not allow their understandable reaction to high-profile and tragic incidents like the death of Manuel Ellis to overwhelm their recognition and support of the good men and women in law enforcement, a job they do each and every day on behalf of their communities.”

AG investigation

The Attorney General’s declaration for the determination of probable cause showed starkly different descriptions of how the encounter started between police and Ellis on March 3, 2020. Officers said Ellis punched their car and attacked them. Witnesses said they saw Ellis speak to officers and continue on his way.

Officers on the scene also gave conflicting statements on whether Ellis continued to resist after officers sought to subdue him. Officer Timothy Rankine said after hobbles were applied, Ellis continued to thrash around. Pierce County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sgt. Gary Sanders said the opposite, that at that point, Ellis “kind of just went quiet.”

The declaration also cited a retired police officer and use of force expert, Sue Peters, who said the officers violated the state law that requires them to facilitate first aid as soon as it’s safe to do so. She said Burbank and Collins would have heard Ellis say he couldn’t breathe, and should have summoned medical aid at that point. Peters also said Officer Rankine used excessive force when he continued to hold Ellis face down after he was hogtied.

Rankine also clashed with first responders who wanted him to remove Ellis’ restraints. According to the declaration, “the paramedic told Rankine when he arrived that Ellis needed an IV, “or “he’s gonna code.” The paramedic asked Rankine to remove the restraints from Ellis’s body so he could administer that IV. Rankine resisted. “

The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide due to hypoxia, meaning Ellis couldn’t breathe when he was restrained by police. Methamphetamine intoxication and an enlarged heart were cited as contributing factors in his death.

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