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Qualified Immunity for Police Could be Barrier to Justice for Ellis

A Pierce County medical examiner has ruled Manuel Ellis' death a homicide. (Cory Doctorow/Flickr)
A Pierce County medical examiner has ruled Manuel Ellis' death a homicide. (Cory Doctorow/Flickr)
June 15, 2020

TACOMA, Wash. -- In the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a Tacoma man, Manuel Ellis, has become part of a somber list of black men who have died in police custody.

Gov. Jay Inslee has announced the state is taking over the investigation into Ellis' death on March 3.

Civil rights attorney James Bible is representing Ellis' family and says security camera footage shows officers ignoring the 33-year-old man's pleas.

"We learned later that there was Ring video from across the street that got significant recording, and his words weren't just, 'I can't breathe'; they were, 'I can't breathe, sir,'" Bible relates.

Bible says the video appears to show one of the officers then telling Ellis to shut up.

The four officers involved in the death were placed on a second round of administrative leave last week after a Pierce County medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

But obstacles remain to holding the officers accountable, including a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity. It protects government employees from lawsuits alleging misconduct unless a "clearly established" right has been violated.

Bible says it's been used to shield police officers.

"Qualified immunity sometimes operates as an obstacle to actual justice," he asserts. "Sometimes it operates as an obstacle to the people in our community being able to decide what was right and what was wrong."

Lawmakers in Congress have introduced a bill that would end qualified immunity. Defenders of the doctrine say it protects officers making snap judgments in dangerous situations.

But Bible says qualified immunity does more than shield officers. He maintains it can be a hindrance to juries.

"It's critical that we let the people decide, that we let this go to juries, for juries to make decisions in relation to these cases," he stresses.

The Washington State Legislature will likely consider this issue at a special session later in the summer.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA