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Washington State Patrol will investigate the death of Manuel Ellis in police custody, governor says

Andrew Cuomo

The Washington State Patrol will start a new investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis, a black man who died while in the custody of the Tacoma Police Department, Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday.

The governor said in a news release he’d ordered State Patrol Chief John Batiste to collect records from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, which had been conducting the investigation before the sheriff learned one of his deputies participated in the attempt to restrain Ellis — creating what the governor’s office called “an incurable conflict.”

“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.”

Work on the new investigation is expected to begin by the end of next week.

Ellis died when police in Tacoma, Washington, attempted to arrest him on March 3 for allegedly “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles.” According to police, a physical altercation ensued, and Ellis had to be restrained.

Part of the arrest was caught on video by a driver, and Ellis could be heard crying, “I can’t breathe,” on police dispatch audio. Officers called for medical assistance, but Ellis died at the scene.

The cause of death was respiratory arrest due to hypoxia caused by physical restraint, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office. Hypoxia is a condition in which the body is deprived of oxygen.

Ellis’ death has sparked protests in Tacoma and garnered new attention in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and widespread protests in response to police brutality, particularly toward African Americans.

After the investigation, the case will be referred to the state Attorney General for potential criminal charges against the officers involved in the incident, the statement from Inslee’s office said.

An attorney for Ellis’ family previously demanded a state investigation, saying the sheriff’s department had too many ties to the Tacoma police.

“Our announcement today focuses on thoroughly investigating what happened late at night on March 3,” Inslee said in the statement. “But I believe the sheriff’s office needs to answer serious questions about what happened, and did not happen, in the months since then.”

Inslee’s office said there was also a Washington State Patrol trooper who was on the scene briefly after Ellis was handcuffed, but the sheriff’s office had not contacted the trooper or asked for a statement. The trooper’s activities at the scene were “limited” and he will be excluded from the investigation, Inslee’s office said.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Thursday morning.

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