Acquittals in Manuel Ellis’ death put Washington state’s police accountability law in the spotlight

A Washington state law aimed at improving police accountability is in the spotlight after three Tacoma officers were acquitted in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who was shocked, beaten and restrained face-down on a sidewalk as he pleaded for breath.

The measure approved by voters in 2018 was designed to make it easier to prosecute police accused of wrongfully using deadly force. Initiative 940, referred to as I-940, removed a requirement that prosecutors prove an officer acted with actual malice in order to bring a case — a requirement no other state had — and established that an independent investigation should be conducted after use of force results in death or great bodily harm, among other things.

The nearly three-month trial of the three police officers — Matthew Collins, 40; Christopher Burbank, 38; and Timothy Rankine, 34 — was the first to be held under the 5-year-old law. The trial over Ellis’ death in Tacoma, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Seattle, ended Thursday with their acquittal on various murder and manslaughter charges.

Protesters hold signs at a rally after the verdict was read during the trial of three Tacoma Police officers in the killing of Manny Ellis, at Pierce County Superior Court, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023, in Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Maddy Grassy)

The acquittal came a day before a jury in Colorado convicted two paramedics in the death of Elijah McClain, another Black man whose case drew national scrutiny.

Matthew Ericksen, a lawyer for the Ellis family, said Washington’s 2018 police accountability law failed in certain regards in a trial that amounted to a test case for the measure, resulting in a verdict that devastated the family.

“One of the big reforms that I-940 was meant to bring was completely independent investigations of in-custody deaths like Mr. Ellis,” Ericksen said. “And that just didn’t happen. The law was violated, and in many ways, there really haven’t been any consequences for that.”

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office botched the initial probe into the death by failing to disclose for three months that one of its deputies had been involved in restraining Ellis, despite the state law requiring independent investigations. The Washington State Patrol took over, and the Attorney General’s Office conducted its review based on evidence gathered by the patrol as well as its own additional investigation before charging the officers.

How effective I-940 can be will come down to how it is enforced, according to Ericksen. While the Ellis case highlighted gaps in the measure, he said it remained one of the “necessary building blocks to hopefully get to some police accountability.”

“We’re better off having I-940 than not,” he said. “I sincerely hope this one verdict does not deter future investigations and prosecutions, and I know the Ellis family feels the same way.”

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Other police reform advocates also were disappointed by the verdict but said the fact the case went to trial at all — due to the law dropping the requirement that prosecutors prove officers acted with malice — already marked a significant change. Another Washington state officer, Jeff Nelson in Auburn, south of Seattle, is awaiting trial on a murder charge brought after I-940.

“We made it possible for them to know that you can be charged if you do something wrong,” said Tonya Isabell, cousin of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother who was fatally shot by Seattle police in 2017. “We’re all hurting, we’re devastated and we’re mad. But again, we have to look at the overall outcome of this.”

Lawyers for the three Tacoma officers said their clients acted in good faith and were relieved by the verdict. The Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death was a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation, but the defense argued at trial that methamphetamine in his system and a heart irregularity were to blame.

Anne Bremner, who represented Rankine, said dropping the malice requirement for prosecution was generally viewed as unwelcome by law enforcement officers because of the potential for exposure to criminal liability.

“We’ve seen a lot of attrition and folks not wanting to become involved in law enforcement careers,” she said. “The vast majority of the officers that we have everywhere do excellent work and want to do their jobs in a way that they can help people and protect the community.”

State Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, a Tacoma Democrat who previously worked in the Attorney General’s Office on the implementation of I-940, said the law on its own does not guarantee accountability but rather “the opportunity to make the case for accountability” in court.

The measure has since been bolstered, she said, by 2021 laws creating an independent state office to review cases involving police use of deadly force and banning chokeholds and neck restraints.

“We do have a framework moving forward that is much more robust,” she said. “My hope as a bigger picture is that we may be able to realize that changes in the culture of policing and the laws around policing are meant to engender public trust. And I hope that we’ll be able to work together.”

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A Washington state police accountability law was spotlighted after three Tacoma officers were acquitted in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who was shocked, beaten and restrained. It was the first trial under the measure, known as Initiative 940, designed to make it easier to prosecute police accused of deadly force. The law dropped the requirement that prosecutors prove officers acted with malice, but critics argue it did not result in an independent investigation of Ellis’ death. The jurors’ verdict disappointed police reform advocates but was seen as marking a significant change. While the defense argued that methamphetamine and a heart irregularity caused Ellis’ death, the impact of I-940 will depend on how it is enforced. State Senator Yasmin Trudeau believes that the law alone does not guarantee accountability but provides an opportunity to make the case for accountability in court. The measure has also been bolstered by 2021 laws creating an independent state office to review cases involving police use of deadly force and banning chokeholds and neck restraints. The hope is that these changes in the culture of policing and the laws around policing will help engender public trust.

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