Tacoma, WA – Two of the five Tacoma police officers involved in the in-custody death of a methamphetamine-fueled suspect who assaulted multiple officers in an unprovoked attack last year have been cleared of wrongdoing.
The Tacoma Police Department (TPD) recently wrapped up an internal investigation into the roles TPD Officer Armando Farinas, 27, and Officer Masyih Ford, 29, played with regards to the March 3, 2020 death of 33-year-old Manuel Ellis, KNKX reported.
Tacoma City Council confirmed during a special meeting Tuesday morning that Officer Ford and Officer Farinas have not been charged with any crimes and that both were exonerated of any wrongdoing at the conclusion of the lengthy TPD internal affairs investigation.
The officers, both of whom have been on the force for less than five years, will need to complete several weeks of mandatory training before they will be allowed to return to the streets, KNKX reported.
Officer Farinas was placed on paid leave in January, and Officer Ford has been on paid leave since June of 2020.
TPD Interim Chief Mike Ake said a lot has changed with regards to policing since the officers have been away, KNKX reported.
“The training is absolutely necessary for them to come back,” Chief Ake agreed. “In the end I exonerated them because they didn’t violate any policies. They are going to move on. They are going to do their job the best they can and we’ll have to address any issues that may come up.”
The internal investigation into three other TPD officers involved in Ellis’ death remains ongoing and isn’t expected to be decided until at least early next year, Tacoma City Manager Elizabeth Pauli told KNKX.
TPD Officer Christopher Burbank and Officer Matthew Collins have both been charged with second-degree murder in connection with Ellis’ death.
TPD Officer Timothy Rankine has been charged with first-degree manslaughter.
According to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s report, the March 3, 2020 encounter Ellis began after Ellis allegedly walked up to a Tacoma patrol vehicle on the corner of Ainsworth Avenue South and 96th Street South at 11:21 p.m. and pounded on it “for no apparent reason,” The News Tribune reported.
Two officers were inside the patrol car at the time, according to the report.
As one of the officers got out of the vehicle, Ellis allegedly grabbed him and threw him to the ground, investigators said.
One of the officers deployed his Taser, hitting Ellis in the chest, just before the officers wound up going hands-on with him, The News Tribune reported.
Bystander cell phone footage showed the officers as they fought to subdue the violent suspect.
By the time the brawl was over, Ellis was handcuffed, his feet were hobbled, and a spit hood had been placed over his head, KIRO reported.
Ellis told the officers four times that he couldn’t breathe, and later died while in custody, according to The Seattle Times.
According to police, Ellis had also been trying to open the doors of other occupied vehicles prior to pounding on the patrol car, The News Tribune reported.
Investigators said he seemed to be suffering from excited delirium.
Officer Burbank, 35, Officer Collins, 38, Officer Rankine, 32, and Officer Ford were placed on leave immediately after Ellis died while the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department (PCSD) conducted an initial investigation into the incident, The Seattle Times reported.
They were returned to duty two weeks later, but that all changed once the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s report came out in June of 2020.
The medical examiner noted that Ellis had a fatal level of methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death, KIRO reported.
“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‚” the medical examiner’s report read.
His death was ruled a homicide, but the medical examiner noted that “an argument could be made that the extremely high methamphetamine concentration should be considered the primary factor,” according to The News Tribune.
The four officers were placed back on paid leave, The Seattle Times reported.
At nearly the same time, two eyewitnesses came forward to dispute the officers’ claims that Ellis had been violent with them.
They also had video clips of portions of the fight after it was already underway, according to the paper.
The PCSD’s investigation into the incident fell apart when investigators discovered PCSD Sergeant Gary Sanders had helped restrain the suspect during the brawl, The Seattle Times reported.
The conflict of interest caused Washington Governor Jay Inslee to intervene, and the case was handed over to the Washington State Patrol (WSP) to investigate.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who was tasked with making a charging decision in the case, hired Seattle attorney Patty Eakes in February to help him wade through the investigation, The Seattle Times reported.
WSP investigators noted in December of 2020 that Officer Farinas was the one who placed the spit hood over Ellis’ head while he was restrained, according to the paper.
Because the medical examiner determined that the mask was one of the contributing factors in Ellis’ death, Officer Farinas was also placed on leave effective Dec. 30, 2020, The Seattle Times reported.
Ferguson announced the charges against Officer Collins, Officer Burbank, and Officer Rankine on May 27.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards offered her condolences to Ellis’ family in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement, adding that the outcomes of internal investigations don’t “account for the emotion that they create,” KNKX reported.
James Bible, the attorney representing Ellis’ family, held a press conference following the announcement.
“We are not surprised that the City of Tacoma and its law enforcement would seek to absolve itself and its officers of any wrongdoing,” Bible declared. “Historically, that is exactly what law enforcement agencies and cities have done.”
He said he completely disagrees Officer Ford and Officer Farinas should be absolved of accountability, KNKX reported.
“I will tell you very concretely, there is a policy that law enforcement needs to intervene if they see somebody killing someone else,” Bible continued. “The reality is that a judge in Pierce County determined that there was probable cause for murder for three officers. Three officers that were involved in killing Manuel Ellis.”
“The reality is that these other officers end up being complicit on some level for their failure to actually intervene and stop and even perhaps participate in the death,” he added.