WSP will take over Manuel Ellis death investigation in Tacoma, governor says

Manuel Ellis
Manuel Ellis

TACOMA, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered the Washington State Patrol to begin a new investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis.

Authorities said Ellis died while being restrained by a law enforcement officers in Tacoma on March 3. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department had been in charge of the investigation, but after three months of work, it was determined that a Pierce County deputy participated in restraining Ellis.

“That created an incurable conflict and led the governor to order the state patrol investigation,” Inslee’s office said in a statement.

The statement says there was a WSP trooper briefly at the scene after Ellis had been handcuffed. The sheriff’s office had not contacted that trooper or asked for a statement about what he saw. The trooper has since responded to questions from WSP and the attorney general’s office. His activities were limited and the patrol will exclude him and others from the area from any part of the investigation.

On Wednesday, Inslee directed WSP Chief John Batiste to immediately begin collecting records from the Pierce County Sheriff’s office and forming the investigative team called for under the police review law created by Initiative 940.

After the patrol concludes its investigation, the case will be referred to the Office of the Attorney General for review for possible criminal charges against the officers involved.

“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.”

The investigation had been undertaken by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department rather than Tacoma Police Department because I-940 prohibits police agencies from investigating themselves.

Inslee’s office also said it appears that provisions of I-940 were not followed by the sheriff’s department. For example, they did not appoint community members to assist in reviewing members of an Independent Investigative Team and the family says there was no family liaison appointed, both requirements of a police agency investigating a case involving someone who dies while in police custody.

“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 state patrol expects that the investigative team will be formed and community members and family liaison appointed soon and work will begin on the new investigation by the end of next week. The law requires that the names of the investigators be made public within 72 hours of their appointment.