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2 Tacoma officers exonerated of policy violations related to Manuel Ellis’ death

Tacoma police officers Armando Farinas and Masiyh Ford were cleared of policy violations in connection to the death of Manuel Ellis in police custody in 2020.

TACOMA, Wash. — Interim Tacoma Police Chief Mike Ake announced two officers involved in Manuel Ellis’ death have been exonerated of any department policy violations.

Ake made the announcement during a Tacoma City Council special meeting Tuesday morning.

Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died in handcuffs while being restrained by Tacoma police on March 3, 2020. Ellis repeatedly told the officers he couldn't breathe.

The Tacoma Police Department (TPD) said officers Armando Farinas and Masiyh Ford were exonerated after “a thorough review of the department’s Internal Affairs investigation, which included criminal investigations by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, Washington State Patrol and Attorney General’s office."

Ake said Farinas was being investigated for placing a spit hood on Ellis while he was being detained. According to the TPD, officers at the scene were “concerned about a possible biohazard exposure” due to Ellis spitting near responding officers.

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Ake said Farinas was familiar with how a spit hood worked and volunteered to put one on Ellis. Once the spit hood was applied, Ake said Farinas had “no other contact” with Ellis.

The TPD said, “it was found the actions of Officer Farinas were reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances.”

Ford was being investigated for possible use of force violations. Ake said Ford held Ellis’ legs so he could be detained in a restraint. Once he was detained, witnesses said Ford continued to speak with Ellis in an attempt to calm him down and to let him know medical aid was on the way. When Ellis said he could not breathe, Ford rolled him onto his side in a “recovery position.”

The TPD said Ford was also the first officer to tell the arriving medical personnel that Ellis’s condition was deteriorating.

“The actions of officer Ford were found to be reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances and not in violation of department policy,” the TPD said.

Both Farinas and Ford will begin the process of returning to work which includes several weeks of training before returning to patrol duties.

Farinas and Ford were never criminally charged in relation to Ellis’ death. However, three other officers have been charged for their involvement.

Attorney James Bible, who represents Ellis' family, argued that despite the city's finding, the officers did break procedure.

“The reality is 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,
 Bible said. "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’ head.”

Matthew Ellis, who is Manuel Ellis' brother, called the decision "ridiculous." He said his family plans to keep fighting for Ellis, but right now they are heartbroken.

"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," Matthew Ellis said. "Just to see exactly what they used to put over his head is just is heartbreaking. He deserved better than that."

Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins are charged with second-degree murder, and Timothy Rankine is charged with first-degree manslaughter in Ellis's death. All three officers have pleaded not guilty to their respective charges.

Cellphone video shot in March of 2020 captured the final moments of Ellis' life. Video footage taken by witnesses shows the officers repeatedly hitting Ellis, and investigators said Collins put Ellis into a neck restraint.

The county medical examiner ruled Ellis' death a homicide, citing illegal drugs as a contributing factor. The report says he died from a lack of oxygen from physical restraint, positioning and the placement of a spit mask over his face.

The officers alleged Ellis attacked their patrol car, but witnesses refuted those statements.

In September, attorneys for Ellis' sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, filed a civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit in U.S. District Court late against the city of Tacoma, Pierce County and several individual officers.

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