by Elizabeth Turnbull
After a Tacoma Police officer ran his vehicle through a crowd of people on Saturday, Jan. 23, unresolved questions about the police killing of Manuel Ellis and other past incidents of excessive use of force led to renewed calls from the community for police oversight. Meanwhile, the response from City of Tacoma officials to the incident this past weekend was disappointing for some.
Following the event, a small protest emerged on Saturday night, and another on Sunday night. In response to the officer’s actions, protesters on Sunday night lit a large fire, damaged buildings, and marched with signs near the intersection where the officer plowed into onlookers.
On Jan. 25, the Tacoma City Council held a special meeting to address the Saturday incident, in which officer Khanh Phan, 58, drove into a crowd of onlookers who were gathered to watch as several civilian cars spun in circles on South 9th Street between the intersections of Court A and Pacific Avenue.
A 48-second video clip released after the event showed a portion of the crowd surrounding the police car before Phan reversed the vehicle and then quickly accelerated through and over several individuals, resulting in injuries to at least two people.
According to a Tacoma Police Department (TPD) spokeswoman, some members of the crowd pounded on the windows of the police vehicle and Phan claims he feared for his safety. Phan’s actions have since been labeled a use of deadly force, and he has been placed on paid administrative leave while the incident is being investigated by the Pierce County Force Investigation Team.
Following the event, some members of the Tacoma community virtually attended the special City Council meeting on Jan 25., expecting to hear a critical discussion of Phan’s actions through the lens of a police officer’s deadly use of force. However, the City Council largely framed the incident as a reaction to street racing and focused on property damage from resulting protests rather than Phan’s actions.
The meeting maintained this focus to such a degree that Deputy Mayor Keith Blocker said that the format of the meeting made him uncomfortable and that the City Councilmembers, the City manager and others were deflecting from the issue of problematic policing.
“I’m not minimizing the importance of making sure we can minimize the property damage and, all that’s important, but what’s most important is how we deploy officers in a way to preserve life,” Blocker said during the meeting. “That’s what this conversation should be grounded in, that’s what should be most important, and we spent a large part, most of this dialogue, talking about street racing.”
Many activists and community members spoke at another City Council meeting on Tuesday night about how the elected officials’ rhetoric in the special meeting the night before resurfaced anger and mistrust in the City and TPD’s willingness to provide transparency and accountability in regards to policing.
Not even a full year ago, Tacoma police killed Manuel Ellis, a thirty-three yearold Black man, as he was walking home from a convenience store on March 3, 2020. The Pierce County medical examiner has since ruled his death a homicide.
Extensive reporting by the Seattle Times’ reporter Patrick Malone revealed a skewed investigation into the case, where information from the TPD and the Pierce County Sheriff’s department conflicted with civilian video footage and eye-witness accounts.
According to police accounts, before he was killed by police officers, Ellis tried to open the doors of occupied vehicles nearby, banged on the police vehicle, and attacked an officer. The Pierce County Sheriff’s account also denied that officers put their knee on Ellis’ head and lawyers representing the officers stated that Ellis was not choked similarly to George Floyd — “not at all.”
Conversely, there were no dispatch logs of drivers complaining that someone was opening the door to their vehicles, and two eyewitnesses who filmed the fatal incident told matching stories of an officer swinging the door of their police vehicle and knocking Ellis down unprovoked.
At this point, eyewitnesses watched as officers brought Ellis to the ground with a chokehold and another officer fired a stun gun into Ellis’ chest. After rolling Ellis onto his stomach, an officer placed his knee high on Ellis’ back or neck and accounts show that officers restrained Ellis with a knee on his neck for at least 40 seconds.
The Medical Examiner’s Office completed Ellis’ autopsy and death certificate on May 11 but failed to share the results, even with investigators, for roughly three weeks. Ultimately, Ellis’ death was revealed to be from oxygen starvation and from physical restraint, while methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease were also listed as contributing factors.
At the beginning of the investigation, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department was tasked with investigating the case for three months before it disclosed that one of its deputies may have helped restrain Ellis, exposing a conflict of interest. It was at this point that the Washington State Patrol took over the investigation.
Local activists and some officials have taken issue with TPD and other police forces in Pierce County for use of violence and lack of transparency. Prior to Ellis’ killing, police in Pierce County have a long history of excessive force, including the killings of Bernie Branch and Said Joquin in separate incidents by police officers in 2019.
In the meeting on Jan 25., Deputy Mayor Blocker took issue with the fact that while street racing was the issue that many City officials chose to discuss, community activists who arrived at the scene after Phan had run over people were the only individuals to be arrested.
“It makes me uncomfortable to know that community organizers were arrested,” Blocker said. “What I’m hearing was the person wasn’t violent but a community organizer was arrested and we’re having a conversation about street racers, and no street racers were arrested — that makes me really uncomfortable and we got to do better.”
Jamika Scott, an organizer with the activist group Tacoma Action Collective, is one of the individuals who was arrested that night, after she says police were dispersing people who were trying to observe the scene.
Scott pointed to Phan’s actions on Jan. 23 as another instance of TPD escalating rather than de-escalating situations. Instead of ticketing people or trying other tactics, the police officer ran people over. She said that a mistrust in TPD’s willingness to be transparent is what brought her to the scene later that night.
“It relates to TPD in the way that they have always existed in our community, as an entity that favors use of force over people de-escalation,” Scott told the Emerald. ”I think it’s right on brand with how TPD tends to show up in our community and how they are constantly finding ways to go into situations and escalating them to the point of using deadly force rather than de-escalating them.”
While City officials are referring to the review as an independent investigation, some activists have taken issue with charging PCFIT with the investigation of the event on Jan. 23.
As of Jan. 25, Washington for Black Lives (W4BL), a coalition of over 35 Black-led organizations across Washington State, is renewing calls for community oversight legislation that would “end the practice of police investigating police.”
“What happened on Saturday was a tragedy made worse by the fact that our laws don’t allow the community to have direct oversight over those sworn to protect and serve us,” said Sedonia Young — a resident of Tacoma, co-founder of W4BL, and leader with Political Destiny — in a W4BL press release about the effort.
Elizabeth Turnbull is a Seattle-based journalist.
Featured image is attributed to British Columbia Emergency Photography account under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-NC 2.0).
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