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Manny Ellis investigation
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Report finds inconsistencies in the investigation of Manny Ellis’ death

Brian Giordano holds a sign during a vigil for his best friend, Manuel Ellis, a black man whose March death while in Tacoma Police custody was recently found to be a homicide, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiners Office, near the site of his death on June 3, 2020 in Tacoma, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

The investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis while in Tacoma police custody was “flawed from the start,” says Seattle Times reporter Patrick Malone in the headline of his investigative report on the case.

“Just for quick background: Manny Ellis was walking in South Tacoma late on the night of March 3, when there was an encounter with police and that’s where the contradictions begin,” Malone told KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show. “Police were very quick to put out statements that characterized Mr. Ellis as aggressive, as trying to enter occupied vehicles at an intersection, and that that was observed by police.”

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The investigation was taken over by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department after it was discovered that Ellis died in police custody due to a lack of oxygen.

“[The sheriff’s department] quickly echoed those same statements that Mr. Ellis was the aggressor and that this was just unfortunate accident that resulted from his aggression toward officers,” Malone said. “But as time went on, a couple of eye witnesses came forward and even had videos. And while they didn’t have the beginning of the interaction between Mr. Ellis and officers, neither did officers because Tacoma — at least not yet — doesn’t have lapel cams on their officers.”

One of the eye witnesses, Malone says, expressed in an interview that he questioned himself, as he wasn’t sure that police were referring to the same incident he saw since their description was so different.

“Both he and the second witness, who also had video recording, … have an identical story that police pulled up close to Mr. Ellis, swung open a car door, knocked him to the ground and the beating commenced,” Malone said. “And from that point, it is on video. So we wanted to kind of take a look at the differences first between what police said and what eye witnesses said, and they’re miles apart.”

Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said in a statement that no officers had put their knees on Ellis’ neck, and that he was talking and breathing during the arrest. Ellis did tell officers that he had trouble breathing, Troyer said, and medical aid was called.

Police also initially stated that Ellis was trying to break into cars at an intersection, but eye witnesses, again, tell a different story.

“The eye witnesses say he was not trying to do that,” Malone said. “And, to be fair, none of us really know what happened in those moments preceding the violent interaction. There were no videos beginning before the officers had taken control of Mr. Ellis, or were in the process of taking control. But I can say that there have been aspects of what Mr. Troyer has said that have been disproven by the video and the eye witnesses.”

“Foremost among them, … he discussed that there were no knees on necks, he distanced it from the circumstances of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis,” Malone added. “In the video, which I’ve watched more times than I care to, filmed by an eyewitness by the name of Andrew Cowden, who was delivering pizzas at night and who also describes what he saw, it’s very clear there were knees high on the back of Mr. Ellis’ neck, … either high on his back or on his neck.”

The officers were holding his head still with a knee, Malone said.

“When these inconsistencies happen, it causes you to question the whole police narrative,” Malone explained. “I mean, it was so convincing, even to someone like Mr. Cowden who had witnessed this firsthand, when he was hearing the press reports, hearing the police statements, he began to doubt himself.”

“So he starts watching his video and he says, ‘No, this is absolutely what I saw,'” Malone added. “So when it comes to the eye witnesses, their stories do not match with what police had to say. And, at least at this point, the folks from law enforcement who are conducting the investigation into the Tacoma police have not yet spoken with these eyewitnesses. So you have to wonder how thorough the investigation is when these contradictory remarks have not been added to the record.”

Additionally, there was a joint regional intelligence group put together that collected information on protests and organizations. Show host Gee Scott asked Malone if it seems like there has been more effort put into finding out who is organizing protests than into the investigation itself?

“It’s certainly been the impression of the folks who organized this and of Ellis’ family that these are oppressive tactics,” Malone responded. “And when you hold it up against some of the things we learned about this surveillance effort, and you compare it to the effort that we saw put into the preliminary investigation of Mr. Ellis’ death by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department — I’ll just use one example, the investigators from the sheriff’s department were about a week out from finalizing their investigation, and we learned through their own emails that they had not asked for Mr. Ellis’ autopsy results.”

“The investigation with everything supposedly complete is less than a week away, and they have not even bothered to find out whether this was a homicide, an accident, or natural causes,” Malone added. “Yet, once this joint intelligence group had begun its work and took over what had been devoted to the COVID Emergency Operation Center on June 3, from that point forward, they’re very closely, with no delay, reporting every twitch and action that involved a potential protest of the Ellis case.”

Malone provided the example of the Tacoma Action Collective, which posted to Facebook asking people to call local leaders and tell them that you want action and results in the Ellis investigation.

“Well, within seven minutes of that posting on Facebook, it had been intercepted by a criminal analyst at this joint intelligence group and was in county Executive Bruce Dammeier’s inbox,” Malone said. “… They wait until within seven or eight days of the conclusion of their investigation to ask for an autopsy report, but they intercept and pass to the highest levels of county government the first hint of a protest.”

“The impression certainly is that there was a full court press on the protest surveillance and a lax approach to the actual death investigation,” he added.

Read the full investigative report from Malone online here.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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