Mayor of Tacoma, Washington, Orders Firing of Four Police Officers Involved in Fatal Arrest of Manuel Ellis After His Death is Ruled a Homicide

A photo of Manuel Ellis, a black man who called out “I can’t breathe” before dying in police custody in Tacoma, Wash.
Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

A woman who witnessed the arrest of Manuel Ellis, a black man who died during the police encounter in Tacoma, Wash., has come forward to dispute the account provided by the police, saying officers themselves had initiated a confrontation so violent that she yelled at them to “stop hitting him.”

Sara McDowell, who was in a car behind the officers, said Friday in an interview that she saw Mr. Ellis approach the police car late on the night of March 3 for what she initially thought was a friendly conversation. But that suddenly changed, she said, when an officer threw open the car door and knocked Mr. Ellis to the ground.

The police have provided a different account, saying that Mr. Ellis initiated the confrontation when he picked up a police officer and threw him to the ground, prompting officers to move in to restrain him.

Ms. McDowell, who recorded parts of the encounter on video, said that the violence of the police response had appeared to her to be unprovoked.

In brief video clips captured by Ms. McDowell, the officers can be seen punching Mr. Ellis, 33, while he was on the ground. On one of the video clips, her voice can be heard calling out to them: “Stop. Oh my God, stop hitting him. Just arrest him.”

“I was terrified for his life, honestly,” Ms. McDowell said. “The way that they attacked him didn’t make sense to me. I went home and was sick to my stomach.”

Mr. Ellis died in the minutes following his arrest after pleading, “I can’t breathe” — an eerie echo of some of the final words from other black men who have died in police custody, including Eric Garner and George Floyd.

Ms. McDowell said she did not realize until this week that Mr. Ellis had died in the aftermath of what she saw.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which has been investigating the death, had no immediate comment on Ms. McDowell’s account or on the two videos she posted of the arrest.

The county medical examiner’s office reported this week that Mr. Ellis died from respiratory arrest, hypoxia and physical restraint and categorized the death as a homicide. The report listed methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as contributing factors.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Mike Baker