Protesters rally in Tacoma on Friday following the death of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma police custody in March. Photograph: Lindsey Wasson/Reuters
A woman who witnessed Manuel Ellis’s arrest on the night the young African American died in police custody says she saw him having a “friendly” conversation with two white police officers when one of them then knocked him to the ground with their car door.
Sara McDowell’s account of what happened on 3 March to Ellis, who died in Tacoma, Washington, of respiratory arrest after calling out “I can’t breathe”, differs widely from the one given by police.
Ellis’ death is now part of a wide-ranging debate over police brutality triggered by the death of George Floyd, killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. Protests have spread across the US since Floyd’s death.
Once Ellis was on the ground, the officer on the passenger side of the car rushed out and started hitting him, while the other officer Tased him, according to the family’s lawyer, James Bible, who spoke with McDowell, 23.
McDowell had pulled her car behind the officers at about 11.20pm. Moments later, when she started to drive past the scene, she saw Ellis lying on the ground, motionless.
“They’re saying things like, ‘Put your hands behind your back,’ but it’s kind of pointless because they’re on top of him and it’s clear he’s just not moving,” Bible said in an interview with the Guardian.
In cellphone footage McDowell shot, she can be heard screaming from her car: “Stop. Oh my God, stop hitting him. Just arrest him.” She also yelled to her partner, who is black, to stay in the car with their young children, as he was starting to go over to help Ellis.
Police have said Ellis was banging on car windows when he came up to the officer’s car asking for help and saying there were warrants out for his arrest. An officer then got out of the car and Ellis grabbed his vest and threw him to the ground.
Ed Troyer, the Pierce county sheriff’s spokesman, had previously told the Guardian the officers did not put him in a chokehold, put a knee on his neck, or use Tasers.
The death of Ellis, a musician and father of two, has been ruled a homicide and is being investigated by the Pierce county sheriff’s department.
The county medical examiner’s officer reported that he died due to hypoxia and physical restraint. Other factors that may have contributed to his death included methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease.
On Friday, Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, announced that the state would conduct an independent review of the investigation and charging decisions related to Ellis’ death.
Bible is now urging the state to run its own investigation of Ellis’ death and for the county sheriff’s office to stop their investigation and hand over their findings to the state.
“The Pierce county sheriff’s office can’t possibly be independent of the Tacoma police department,” he said. “They have too much bias to be allowed to do the investigation.”
Troyer told the Guardian that he had no concerns about the office’s ability to conduct an independent investigation: “We’ve held investigations of our own people and fired them in the past.”
The office will present its findings to the prosecutor next week.
Troyer said while the office had written over 20 reports and talked to a variety of witnesses, after reaching out to McDowell, it had not yet been able to speak with her.