Tacoma’s police chief speaks out about investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis

VIDEO: Tacoma's police chief speaks out about investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis

TACOMA, Wash. — Tacoma’s police chief says he supports an independent state-led investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis while he was in the custody of Tacoma police officers.

“As far as I’m concerned, and I would imagine most of our officers here, they support that, and I support it too. I think it’s the right thing to do,” Chief Don Ramsdell said.

Ellis, 33, was being restrained by four Tacoma police officers on the night of March 3 after investigators say he charged at them and began fighting with officers. Cellphone video shot by eyewitnesses at the scene showed the officers in a struggle with Ellis.

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A report by the Pierce County Medical Examiner shows Ellis was handcuffed, his feet hobbled with a belt and a spit mask was placed over his head. Ellis was heard crying out that he was unable to breathe.

The medical examiner’s report noted Ellis had a high level of methamphetamine in his system.

“Death, therefore, is certified as being due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint with contributing conditions of methamphetamine intoxication and a dilated heart‚" according to the report. Ellis’ death was ruled a homicide.

Gov. Jay Inslee called for the state to assume jurisdiction of the case after it was revealed this week that a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy arrived at the scene at some point. That department had conducted an investigation, but county prosecutor Mary Robnett decided the deputy’s presence could result in the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Ramsdell said a state-run independent investigation will give the public more confidence in the final results.

“I hope so, and I think that’s why we’re doing it this way,” Ramsdell said.

The four officers involved — Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, Masyih Ford and Timothy Rankin — had returned to work after an initial period of administrative leave. They were put back on leave for their own safety after the medical examiner’s report was made public, Ramsdell said.

“I felt that it was in the best interest of our officers to have them placed on administrative leave,” Ramsdell said. "I think it would be very difficult for them to be out on the street.”