Monet Carter-Mixon wanted to know more, no matter the pain.
One morning in March, she took a call from a number she assumed to be the Pierce County government. She recently filed to put her brother on her health insurance, so maybe it was the health department calling to fix an error.
It was the medical examiner’s office. She was her brother’s emergency contact. A staffer on the line asked if she was somewhere safe, and not driving.
Manuel Ellis, 33, had died overnight, the voice on the phone told her. Before she broke into tears, Carter-Mixon forced out a question: What happened? Little could be said until the toxicology report came out, the staffer said. But she pressed.
“Well,” she recalled the staffer saying, “he was in custody with the police.”
A musician and father, Ellis died almost three months before George Floyd, but in a grimly similar fashion. Police said he tried to open doors of occupied cars that night, and banged on a police cruiser. Police restrained him and he stopped breathing.
Only after Floyd’s death reignited nationwide protests against police brutality did video surface of Tacoma Police Department officers kneeling on Ellis’ neck. He told the officer, “I can’t breathe, sir.”
Police in Washington state have killed more than 90 people since December 2018, when Initiative 940 became law. The law promised more transparency and accountability from agencies when officers kill, each death bound for an independent investigation.
Advocates, lawmakers and people who have lost family members to police killings are already brandishing red pens for a rewrite. They say a problem persists with police investigating police.
“A candid assessment is that police cannot investigate themselves,” said Leslie Cushman, who helped write the law. “Because it’s probably impossible to be impartial and unbiased about your colleagues.”
Independent investigators publicly botched the investigation of Ellis’ death. Carter-Mixon, 29, now stands among those calling for rewrites to the law. And – changes or not – she bristles to think of other families spun apart by a police killing.
“It makes you feel crazy,” she said in early November, while scrolling through pre-law coursework on her laptop at her apartment in University Park, Seattle. A homemade altar to Ellis rested on a nearby end table.
“To hear that it’s happening again – I need it to stop,” she said. “It sits on my conscience, because I’m worried for everybody.”
I-940′s latest high-profile test is occurring 140 miles south. At the end of October, Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputies shot and killed a 21-year-old man named Kevin Peterson Jr. outside Vancouver, Washington.
His family has already retained the attorney representing George Floyd’s family, suggesting they, too, question whether the state’s new system will find the truth.
Doubts and contradictions
Protest erupted immediately after Peterson’s death and prompted a rare press conference from Clark County’s sheriff, Chuck Atkins.
He took no questions about the case. He told reporters and television cameras that Peterson “reportedly” shot at deputies. Detectives would make a similar insinuation in a search warrant for Peterson’s impounded car.
Almost two weeks after the press conference, investigators revealed there was no evidence Peterson ever fired the .40 caliber handgun he carried.
That day, Oct. 29, Peterson arrived at a budget hotel a little after 5:30 p.m. in his dark blue Mercedes-Benz. A drug task force from the sheriff’s office and the Vancouver Police Department, tipped off by an informant, waited for him to make a sale of 50 Xanax pills.
The bust went haywire. Task force members blocked Peterson’s car at some point. He fled on foot. Investigators saw a Glock model 23 handgun. Peterson ran to the parking lot of a shuttered bank less than a football field away.
Peterson encountered more deputies, who had been alerted he was armed. They confronted him. He reportedly fished the handgun from his sweatshirt, and turned to walk the opposite direction. Then a deputy shot him. Investigators said security camera footage, which hasn’t been released, shows Peterson falling and then aiming a gun.
It’s unclear how many bullets then struck Peterson, but, in all, three deputies pulled their triggers.
Witness accounts on social media that night doubted Peterson shot a gun. Witness statements haven’t been made public, either.
That the claim about Peterson circulated at all troubled civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who added Peterson’s family to a client list that already included the likes of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd.
“After officers took his life, they proceeded to cover up what actually transpired – lying to both Kevin’s family and to the public they swore to protect and serve,” Crump said in a statement.
Peterson’s case, like others in recent years, shows that a lack of trust in police investigations persists, even when laws on the books are designed to bring accountability.
Voters overwhelmingly passed I-940 in 2018 with aspirations to erase any perceived bias when investigating police for killing. Its passage immediately meant investigations into deadly force had to be “completely independent,” led by a patchwork of uninvolved police from a given region.
Finer points of the law took another year to go into effect: Two non-law enforcement community members must serve on each investigation, assigned detectives must have an “honorable” and misconduct-free history, and investigators must declare any possible conflicts of interest.
Each change was meant to untangle the close-knit relationships in law enforcement that go beyond jurisdictions, said Monisha Harrell, a main signature-gatherer for I-940 and board chair of Equal Rights Washington.
“Many of their connections are much too close to each other and there really isn’t an unbiased ability to investigate those people who went to the same school you did,” Harrell said. “We only have one criminal justice training center in Washington state.”
Even with the law in place, Harrell said, it isn’t ironclad.
“It’s very hard to take that bias and set it aside when you’re doing — or should be doing — a criminal investigation,” Harrell said. “An example of that that we see is in the Manny Ellis case.”
‘I knew something was off’
Another facet of the I-940 is meant to bridge the relationship between investigators and the families of those killed. A liaison is assigned to the family.
When Ellis died March 3, Carter-Mixon said, a detective met the family just once – the day after police killed him.
“From the jump, I knew something was off,” she said.
Ellis lived for years with undiagnosed schizophrenia. He self-medicated with marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. In September 2019, he tried to rob a fast-food chain. He made bail and lived in a sober living home.
He was trying to put his best foot forward, Carter-Mixon said. He took prescribed medication. He talked about getting his own apartment, with family helping pay the security deposit.
After little contact with detectives or investigators, the family and its lawyer sought answers on their own.
A Facebook group for listening to police scanners sent them audio that captured Ellis’ pleas to breathe. Eyewitnesses said Ellis never struck the Tacoma police cruiser, rather an officer swung open the door into Ellis. Bystanders filmed officers kneeling on his neck.
The claims underpin the family’s $30 million lawsuit against the city.
Meanwhile, the investigation blundered from the start. It fell to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, but the agency failed to mention that one of its deputies helped Tacoma police restrain Ellis that night. That fact didn’t emerge for three months.
Gov. Jay Inslee called it an “incurable conflict” and ordered a second investigation helmed by the Washington State Patrol.
“That confirmed our worst fears,” said Cushman, the citizen sponsor of I-940. “That police, in this instance, could not be trusted.”
Peterson’s death investigation initially landed in the hands of deputies and police from Clark and Skamania counties – a team known as the Southwest Washington Independent Investigation Response Team.
Five days after Peterson’s death, the team relinquished control. A team of Cowlitz County deputies and officers from the cities of Kelso, Longview and Woodland took over. An official with the new investigative team said Clark County’s prosecutor asked the original team to step aside.
Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said he didn’t order the hand-off, but suggested it. Recently, he’s also advocated that reviews of deadly force – often handled by the local prosecutor – be made more separate, too.
“It was a discussion with commanders,” Golik said. “Basically a discussion that, in my opinion – my continuing opinion on these – is the more independence the better.”
Close observers of Peterson’s case have questioned if the investigation is as transparent or independent as advertised. Weeks passed without the officers involved being identified. The 21-year-old’s smiling portrait wallpapered social media feeds with a repeated question: “Who killed Kevin Peterson?”
One activist named Roman, who asked his last name be withheld, said he and others were confused by the investigation changing hands and the lack of communication.
“I think Vancouver is a community with deep racial divides and, I think in this climate, the police have been making attempts to correct racial biases in their office,” Roman said. “I think by naming the officers who shot Kevin Peterson Jr. the police have an opportunity to say this is what happened, these were the officers involved, this is what they did right or wrong, and this is what we’re going to do next time so it doesn’t happen again.”
Eventually, the three officers’ names did come out – along with new that Peterson likely had not fired his weapon.
Peterson’s own family was in the dark at the outset. Kim and Kevin Peterson Sr. stood near the hotel and bank parking lot that night, all but certain their son died. Police would not let them lay eyes on his body to confirm until 5:30 the next morning, almost 12 hours after his death.
A vigil the next night packed hundreds into the shuttered bank’s parking lot. The family attended while organizers shielded them from media attention. At one point, a family member was handed a white legal envelope.
Inside was a card and a packet, meant to orient a bewildered family. It listed names of support groups and people whose family members died by police.
Spiriting the envelope to the family – before she was bear-maced by far-right extremists – was Pam Hunter.
‘Don’t worry about it’
Their brother’s death made Pam and Nickeia Hunter two things: police reform advocates and self-described “super aunts.”
One November night in Nickeia’s east Vancouver home, five of their brother’s six children played in other rooms. Carlos Hunter died in 2019 during a drug sting similar to Peterson’s. Nickeia, a carpenter out of work since July, devotes hours to their care.
“It’s a great juggling act. It takes a village, but our village is even smaller now,” Nickeia said. “Because we don’t have our protector. We don’t have our strength. We only had one brother.”
It was around 1:30 p.m. on March 7, 2019, when Carlos Hunter drove to pick up his son from day care. A regional task force watched him leave.
They suspected the 43-year-old to be an active gang member dealing the drug ecstasy. They prepared to execute a search warrant on him, his car and his home. They pulled him over in Hazel Dell, about a mile from where Peterson died.
Investigators claim Carlos Hunter disobeyed commands, and officers tried to pull him from the car. They said he reached toward a gun near his waist. Deputies fired three Tasers. Then, two officers on either side of the car stepped back and fired their guns repeatedly. According to the autopsy, Hunter had 18 to 20 bullet wounds to his chest.
Related: In Vancouver, family and friends mourn the death of Carlos Hunter
The Camas Police Department led the investigation under I-940′s still developing rules. The Clark County Prosecutor ruled it a justified killing months later.
The sisters dispute Hunter was involved with gangs and say he was unfairly portrayed.
They said he joined a gang to survive when he landed in juvenile detention at age 13. His last criminal conviction was first-degree robbery at age 25 – a full 18 years before police killed him.
He used drugs recreationally, but never dealt, the sisters said. When police searched his home – which he shared with four other adults – they found only cannabis, a drug that has been legal in the state for years.
“Because of the way they drug his name, because of the way they brought his past and made it seem fresh and current … they made it seem like they killed a human being (and said) ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Nickeia said.
Carlos Hunter was one of three people killed by Vancouver police in the course of a single month in 2019. They also fatally shot Clayton Joseph, a 16-year-old native of Micronesia, and Michael Pierce, a white man in the midst of a psychotic break.
Related: Pacific Islander community responds to Vancouver teen's shooting
All lived when I-940 had passed, yet died before its rules around citizen oversight and conflicts of interest solidified. The spate of police violence catalyzed civil rights groups and advocates, including the Hunter sisters, to form the Clark County Justice Group.
“Our goal is to reimagine public safety,” said Danielle Jokela, an advocate. “All of these deaths had occurred and so this specific group, we coalesced.”
At least 40 have died across the state this year, advocates say. A retired University of Washington researcher combined publicly available data from Fatal Encounters and the Washington Post’s national police shootings database.
Besides Peterson, police in Clark County have killed two other people this year. Local police have failed to meet the standards of I-940 in both of those cases, the Clark County Justice Group said.
The first: William Abbe, a 50-year-old homeless man with a history of erratic behavior. In April, he reportedly attacked another man at a bus stop, then threw objects at several responding Vancouver police officers, who drew their pistols. They shot him multiple times.
Abbe’s investigation had no citizen oversight. Vancouver police said the pandemic hampered efforts to build a pool of approved people.
On Oct. 4, another homeless man named Andrew Williams, 41, forced his way into his girlfriend’s apartment. He stabbed her and her son with a screwdriver. The son then stabbed him with a pocketknife. Williams left, only to encounter two Vancouver officers. They fired Tasers, then shot him.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office led that investigation and released little to no information, Jokela said. They knew nothing about Williams, such as his race, until the investigation completed.
“It’s frustrating to know we’ve got these incidents that are happening, we know there are commonalities between all of them,” Jokela said. “It puts up a block to not have the information readily available.”
The next generation
Eight months after Manuel Elis’ death, the Washington State Patrol completed the second investigation.
Carter-Mixon didn’t react. She appreciated it as a milestone, but it may be months before the state Attorney General’s Office completes its criminal review. There was no timetable for that, the office said.
“This whole thing has been kind of taking too long,” Carter-Mixon said. “It’s almost been nine months and nothing. That’s like how long it takes for a life to form inside of a woman’s belly.”
Harrell and Cushman, I-940′s advocates, welcomed the second investigation to be run and completed as the law intended. But they are looking ahead, too. The laws need to change again, they said.
“It’s hard to believe it’s aged so much. For its time period, it was considered really pushing the envelope and revolutionary, and yet it only passed in 2018,” Harrell said. “But it was a step – and it was the best step we could get at the time.”
The problem is compliance, Harrell said. There is no penalty for agencies that ignore the new standards. At least 30 police investigations this year are being reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office.
“You assume that people sworn to uphold the law would follow the law,” Harrell said. “That was an assumption we probably shouldn’t have taken at face value.”
Two separate groups are looking at ways to shore up holes in I-940: a task force established by Inslee, and a caucus of House Democrats in the state legislature. Both will recommend the state create a completely independent, civilian-run investigative body to examine police killings.
“That’s sort of the next generation,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, who chairs the public safety committee. Lawmakers will deliberate the police reform ideas when they convene in 2021.
Meanwhile, families like the Petersons and the Hunters wait, and worry another family will have to go through the same trauma.
At her University Park apartment, Carter-Mixon said she wants to have a voice in decisions that shape police oversight and accountability. She said that’s why she returned to school to study law.
“Me and Manny talked about it last year,” she said. She said she wanted to make changes to the laws that affect Black Americans the most.
“I don’t know, just something’s in me,” Carter-Mixon said. “I have to keep going and I have to keep fighting.”