Tacoma mayor calls for officers to be fired, prosecuted after man dies in custody

Victoria Woodards, the mayor of Tacoma, Washington, has called for four officers to be fired and prosecuted after a black man, who yelled out “I can’t breathe,” died in police custody.

Woodards spoke Thursday after a video emerged earlier in the day of Manuel Ellis’ death on March 3. Ellis died from respiratory arrest, hypoxia (when the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply at the tissue level) and physical restraint, according to a medical examiner’s report. Police said officers had seen him banging on the window of another vehicle.

“The officers’ actions we saw on this video tonight only confirm that Manuel Ellis’ death was a homicide, and today I am asking — no, I am telling you — that I am going to call for several things, and the officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Woodards said at a press conference.

She called on the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which is investigating the incident, to review and confirm every action taken by each officer.

“It does take a video for so many people to believe the truth about systemic racism and its violent impact on black lives, on my life,” said Woodards, who is black.

She said that while she watched the video she became “even more enraged and angered and disappointed.”

“I don’t get to take this skin color off every day,” she continued. “I don’t get to come out a different person, and while I am mayor, I am still black. I am still treated as an African American woman. I am still looked at as African American woman. My life could be taken, and today it stops in Tacoma.”

Though Ellis died about three months ago, the video emerged Thursday in the midst of nationwide protests to end police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, another black man who yelled “I can’t breathe” and died in police custody.

Police said that they saw Ellis banging on the window of another vehicle and restrained him “as he continued to be combative,” according to ABC Seattle station KOMO.

Detective Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County sheriff, said he didn’t know the details of how Ellis was restrained, KOMO reported. Troyer said he did not believe a chokehold was used.

The video shows Ellis and the officers struggling before Ellis is taken to the ground. A woman can be heard shouting from her car, “Hey! Stop! Oh my God, stop hitting him. Just arrest him. Just arrest him. Oh my God, that looks so scary.”

The video then shows her driving by as two officers are restraining Ellis and telling him to put his hands behind his back.

After Ellis yelled “I can’t breathe,” Troyer said the officers rolled him on his side and medical aid was requested.

Ellis was still breathing when medical personnel arrived, and he was removed from handcuffs while receiving medical attention for about 40 minutes before being pronounced dead, Troyer said.

The medical examiner’s report stated that in addition to the official causes of death — respiratory arrest, hypoxia and physical restraint — additional factors such as methamphetamine intoxication and dilated cardiomyopathy, also known as an enlarged heart, contributed. Ellis was a struggling addict but working to turn his life around, an attorney representing his family said.

His death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, meaning he was killed by another person. That medical conclusion doesn’t accuse anyone of committing a crime in his death.

Woodards demanded that the city pay for body cameras worn by police immediately.

“We have heard way too many excuses,” she said.

Ellis’ mother, Marcia Carter, was joined by other family members outside the Pierce County Superior Courthouse with representatives from the NAACP and the Tacoma Action Collective to call for an independent investigation by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.

“As a mother, you can never imagine what it’s like to bury your son,” Carter said on Thursday.

James Bible, an attorney representing Ellis’ family, said that Ellis was not a danger to anyone.

“There was no reason to kill this man. They weren’t in danger of anything. He was unarmed,” Bible said.

The officers involved, who have not been identified, have been placed on administrative leave, according to a statement from Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell.

“We hear your anger, frustrations and hopes. I want you to know we continue to be committed to engaging with you on topics of safety, community policing and race, so that all people feel safe in Tacoma,” Ramsdell said.

A police spokeswoman did not immediately return an email from ABC News on Friday seeking more details on the incident.

The uproar around Ellis’ death comes as officers elsewhere in Washington, in the city of Spokane, released bodycam footage of an arrest that included an officer kneeled on a suspect’s neck.

“In light of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, SPD is sensitive to the fear, anger and confusion over the pictures and narrative,” police said in a statement. “The arrest incident is under investigation by SPD and is a top priority given the current climate of unrest and protests.”

In that incident, police were called to the scene by a Park Ranger who “expressed a sense of urgency.”

Police said the ranger was fighting with the suspect and had trouble handling him, prompting several police officers to respond.

The suspect, who’s white, can be heard shouting “ow” multiple times and asking the officer to take his knee off his neck.

Police said the officer had his knee on the man’s neck for about one minute.

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