Two officers in Tacoma, Washington, have been exonerated and cleared to return to work after being investigated for policy violations in connection with the death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who died in police custody last year after warning, "I can't breathe."
Ellis, 33, died in custody on March 3, 2020 after being stopped by Tacoma police officers and eventually handcuffed and restrained following a struggle.
While the two officers have been cleared in the internal probe, three of their colleagues are still facing charges over the deadly incident.
In a statement, the Tacoma Police Department said its interim chief Mike Ake had notified officers Armando Farinas and Masiyh Ford that they had been “exonerated of any policy violations related to their involvement in the Manuel Ellis case” following an internal probe.
Farinas had been investigated for his “application of a spit hood” on Ellis. The department said his actions were found to be "reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances" given that at the time of application, officers had been concerned about a "possible biohazard exposure due to Mr. Ellis spitting near officers."
Ford was investigated for use of force, with the department saying that the officer was found to have taken hold of Ellis's legs to allow him to be detained in a restraint. The department said that after Ellis was detained, Ford tried to calm him down and assisted in rolling him onto his side when he warned he could not breathe.
The department said Ford also was the first officer to alert medical personnel arriving on the scene that Ellis's condition was deteriorating as it declared his actions also reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances.
It said both officers would be able to return to work, but would need to undergo training before they can return to any patrol duties.
Neither Farinas nor Ford were criminally charged over the incident. Washington State’s attorney general charged officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins with second-degree murder and Timothy Rankine with first-degree manslaughter over Ellis’ death. All three have pleaded not guilty.
Attorney James Bible, who represents Ellis’s family, said he believed the two officers were “complicit on some level for their failure to actually intervene and stop and even perhaps participate in the death,” NBC News affiliate KING 5 reported.
“We can’t pretend that Manny was not in an absolutely vulnerable space where he couldn’t move or do anything else at the time that Farinas put his spit mask over Manuel Ellis’s head,” Bible said.
Ellis’s brother, Matthew Ellis, condemned the decision to clear Farinas and Ford of policy violations as “ridiculous.”
“No one has any idea how it feels to cry every single day for nine months straight, to relive what happened to your best friend, to my little brother, to a son,” he said, according to KING 5. “Just to see exactly what they used to put over his head is just is heartbreaking. He deserved better than that.”
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In a statement on Tuesday, the police union said it was “pleased to welcome Officers Armando Farinas and Masiyh Ford back to active duty with the Tacoma Police Department.”
“Their exoneration of any misconduct reaffirms that they followed their training and the Tacoma Police Department’s policies and expectations,” the union said.
“Our officers, Mr. Ellis’ family, and our Tacoma community deserve a fair, accountable, and objective investigation so that the untainted facts—the truth—can be revealed,” it said, adding: “With those facts in hand, we know that Officers Farinas and Ford did no wrong.”
Authorities have previously said that Ellis was stopped for harassing a woman in her car. Probable cause documents, however, said officers were unprovoked when they slammed Ellis to the ground before punching and restraining him as he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”
The documents said Ellis had gone to a store near his home to get a late-night snack when he encountered Burbank and Collins at around 11:20p.m. as they stopped at a red light in their patrol car.
Ellis “appeared to briefly interact with the officers as they sat in their car,” the documents said, with witnesses saying it had looked as though he was having a "casual conversation" with the officers and showed "no signs of aggression."
The documents said that as Ellis began to walk away, Burbank “abruptly swung open the passenger door of the car, striking Ellis from behind and knocking him to his knees."
The situation escalated from there, they said, with witnesses saying Burbank got out of the vehicle and got on top of Ellis as he tried to stand up, the documents said.
Several witnesses were said to have recorded the altercation on their phones, with video from one woman showing Burbank wrapping his arms around Ellis at one point and “lifting him into the air, and driving him down into the pavement, striking at him with one of his fists as he does so," according to the documents.
“Collins then moves in towards Ellis and brings his weight down onto him. With Ellis underneath him, Collins begins striking Ellis’s head with his fist,” they said.
Collins was further accused of slamming Ellis to the ground as Burbank fired a stun gun at him, while both officers were said to have had Ellis pinned to the ground by the time Rankine arrived on the scene, according to the documents.
Rankine is accused of having applied pressure to Ellis's back with both knees, according to the documents.
Authorities had previously suggested that Ellis had been the aggressor in the incident, saying he repeatedly struck the patrol car, prompting the officers to call for backup before detaining him. They also said Ellis had "picked up (an) officer by his vest and slam-dunked him on the ground."
But the documents rejected those allegations saying: “These accounts are contradicted by the three civilian witnesses, none of whom ever saw Ellis in the intersection, or saw Ellis strike the officers’ car, or saw Ellis attack, punch, or otherwise strike the officers at any point."
"These civilian accounts are supported by video sources," they said.
The Tacoma Police Union previously blasted the decision to bring charges against the three officers as “a politically motivated witch hunt.”
“An unbiased jury will find that the officers broke no laws and, in fact, acted in accordance with the law, their training, and Tacoma Police Department policies," the union said in May.
Ellis’s death was ruled a homicide in June 2020 by the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office, which said he died of respiratory arrest due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint.
Methamphetamine intoxication and dilated cardiomyopathy, commonly known as an enlarged heart, were deemed contributing factors.
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