Washington Gov. Inslee announces new investigation into black man’s death in Tacoma police custody
Due to a conflict of interest with the current prosecutor, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has announced a new independent investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis, a black man who called out “I can’t breathe” before dying in police custody in Tacoma in March.
“I have become convinced that the Pierce County Sheriff should not complete the investigation of the death of Manuel Ellis and the county prosecutor should not review the investigation and make charging decisions,” Inslee said in a statement Wednesday. “Instead, there must be a new investigation and charging decision made independent of Pierce County law enforcement.”
A medical examiner’s report released last week determined Ellis died from oxygen deprivation and ruled his death a homicide.
The 33-year-old father of two had drugs in his system and heart disease and had allegedly just assaulted an officer prior to being taken into custody.
Ellis was walking through an intersection on the evening of March 3, when four officers notice him “struggling,” according to Q13 News, citing Pierce County Sheriff’s Detective Ed Troyer.
“They asked him if he was alright and needed help,” Troyer told the outlet. “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.”
The officers handcuffed him, and paramedics reportedly arrived within minutes. He can be overheard on police radio saying “I can’t breathe.” At some point, he died on the ground.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office said its officers did not pin Ellis down with a knee on his neck – which happened to George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25 in an incident caught on video.
“There was no heads on knees. There was no cutting off of circulation, none of that,” Troyer told Q13. “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.”
The four officers have been placed on administrative leave. Two are white, one is black and one is Asian, Q13 reported.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards welcomed the new investigation.
“We strongly concur with the governor and Pierce County prosecuting attorney that this new information mandates that an independent agency other than the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department conduct a new investigation of the entire event,” she said Wednesday.
Inslee said officials were still discussing what law enforcement agency would handle the independent investigation, which stemmed out of a conflict of interest on behalf of the local prosecutor.
“The county prosecutor informed the state late yesterday that the Pierce County Sheriff’s department had officers at the scene when Mr. Ellis was detained and died,” Inslee said. “In light of this new information, the county prosecutor believes that she has an irreconcilable conflict that would preclude her office from handling this case.”
Inslee also said that a Washington State Patrol trooper was briefly at the scene while Ellis was still alive, and that investigators would interview him or her for more details.
Fox News’ Chris Irvine contributed to this report.