Washington state police accountability law in spotlight after officers acquitted in Ellis’ death


A Washington state law aimed at improving police accountability is in the news after three Tacoma officers acquitted in 2020 death Of a black man named Manuel Ellis, who was startled, beaten, and restrained on the sidewalk pleaded for breath,

The measure approved by voters in 2018 was designed to make it easier to prosecute police accused of wrongfully using deadly force. Initiative 940, known as I-940, removed a requirement that prosecutors prove that an officer acted with actual malice in bringing the case – a requirement that no other state had – and established That an independent investigation be conducted after the use of force results, among other things, in death or great bodily harm.

The nearly three-month trial of three police officers – Matthew Collins, 40; Christopher Burbank, 38; And Timothy Rankin, 34, was the first person to be caught under the 5-year-old law. The trial in Ellis' death in Tacoma, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Seattle, ended Thursday with acquittals on various murder and manslaughter charges.

Ellis family attorney Matthew Ericksen said Washington's 2018 police accountability law failed in some respects in a lawsuit that was a test case for the measure, resulting in a verdict that devastated the family.

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"One of the big reforms that I-940 was going to bring was fully independent investigations into in-custody deaths like Mr. Ellis's," Erickson said. “And that didn't happen. “The law was violated, and in many ways, there were really no consequences.”

Despite state law requiring an independent investigation, the Pierce County Sheriff's Office botched the initial investigation of the death by failing to disclose for three months that one of its deputies was involved in restraining Ellis. The Washington State Patrol took over, and the Attorney General's Office reviewed it based on evidence collected by the patrol as well as its own additional investigation. before accusing the authorities,

According to Ericsson, how effective I-940 may be will depend on how it is implemented. While the Ellis case highlighted shortcomings in the measure, he said it remains one of the "essential building blocks to get some police accountability."

"Having I-940 puts us in a better position," he said. “I sincerely hope that this ruling will not prevent future investigations and prosecutions, and I know the Ellis family feels the same way.”

Other police reform advocates were also disappointed with the decision, but said the fact that the case went to trial — eliminating the need for prosecutors to prove that officers acted maliciously — was already a significant change. Is. Another Washington state official, Jeff Nelson at AuburnSouth of Seattle, a man awaits trial on murder charges brought after I-940.

"We've made it possible for them to know that if you do something wrong you can be charged," said Charlina Lyles' cousin, Toni Isabel, an expectant mother. Fatally shot by Seattle police in 2017, “We are all in pain, we are devastated and we are crazy. But still, we have to look at its overall outcome."

Attorneys for the three Tacoma officers said their clients acted in good faith and were relieved by the verdict. The Pierce County medical examiner ruled that Ellis' death was a homicide caused by lack of oxygen, but the defense argued at trial that the methamphetamine in his system and heart irregularities were to blame.

Bremner, who represented Rankin, said that waiving the malice requirement for prosecution was generally considered undesirable by law enforcement officials because of the potential for risk of criminal liability.

"We've seen a lot of people give up and not want to get involved in law enforcement careers," he said. “The majority of officers we have everywhere do an excellent job and want to do their jobs in a way that they can help people and protect the community.”

State Senator Yasmine Trudeau, a Tacoma Democrat who previously worked in the Attorney General's office on I-940 implementation, said the law does not in itself guarantee accountability, but rather "makes the case for accountability" in court. Provides "opportunity".

Since then, he said, the measure has been promoted 2021 law Creating an independent state office to review cases involving the use of deadly force by police and banning strangulation and neck compression.

“We have a framework for moving forward that is much stronger,” he said. “My hope as a bigger picture is that we might be able to realize that changes to the culture of policing and the laws around policing are meant to build public confidence. And I hope we can work together.”

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