TACOMA — A statewide investigation will be done into 30 cases where police killed or injured people this year to ensure law enforcement agencies are complying with a new law requiring independent investigations, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Tuesday.
The inquiry was prompted by apparent lapses by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department to follow Initiative 940 while looking into the March 3 death of Manuel Ellis as he was detained by Tacoma police.
“Pierce County’s admitted failure to comply with the requirements of I-940 is deeply troubling,” Ferugson said in a statement. “I hope our inquiry will find that law enforcement agencies across the state, unlike Pierce County, are following the law that requires independent, transparent investigations into the use of deadly force.”
There are no known instances of other investigations not complying with the law, Ferguson said.
Once the review is complete, the Attorney General’s Office will release its findings to the public.
Ferguson told The News Tribune he plans to complete the inquiry before the legislative session begins in January so policymakers “can review and discuss potential changes that might be needed.”
Voters in 2018 passed I-940, which bans law enforcement from investigating its own uses of force resulting in death or significant injury.
Part of the law requires independent investigations and demands investigative teams appoint two community representatives who can help choose investigators, review potential conflicts of interest and information released to the media and be able to look over evidence and reports at the end of the investigation.
The law went into effect Jan. 6.
Ferguson said the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department violated I-940 during its three-month investigation into Ellis by failing to appoint community members, not designating a family liaison and not immediately disclosing a conflict of interest.
It wasn’t until earlier this month that Sheriff Paul Pastor told Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett two deputies were on scene during Ellis’ arrest and one deputy helped restrain Ellis.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to a call for comment.
A sheriff’s spokesman has said Tacoma police did not tell them which community representatives to work with, a detective did reach out to one of Ellis’ relatives and a report from the deputy on scene was always included in the investigation.
Ellis’ death was ruled a homicide due to oxygen deprivation from physical restraint, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Four Tacoma police officers are on paid administrative leave while an investigation is conducted.
After learning a sheriff’s deputy was involved in restraining Ellis, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the Washington State Patrol to start a new investigation.
Review of the case and the decision on whether to criminally charge the four involved Tacoma officers rests with Ferguson’s office.
Although state law does not require law enforcement agencies to report uses of deadly force, Ferguson said he plans to prepare a report with recommendations on how to collect and report data in the future.
The report is expected to be completed by July 1.