Last week marked the anniversary of the police killing of Manuel Ellis. I want to apologize to the Ellis family for everything that has happened to them because of the Tacoma Police Department. Their loss feels insurmountable.
Police brutality is personal to me, now more than I wish it was.
I’m the son of a Tacoma police officer who plowed his police cruiser through a crowd of people at a drag race in January.
Though there were injuries, no one died. And though the incident initially trended on social media as a Black Lives Matter event, that wasn’t true.
No real harm done then, right? This brutal behavior wasn’t a targeted, racist act. It was just an officer doing his job, an officer who cared deeply about protecting Tacoma’s communities from those hoodlums breaking the law.
But if plowing through crowds was just dad doing his job to some people, then what does this say about the job law enforcement officers are doing?
A large number of right-wing YouTubers have shared the video of the incident far and wide. They’ve made it an example of cancel culture, and of reactionary leftists going overboard. They argue a reasonable way for an officer to respond to a non-compliant group of people attacking his car is to drive a ton of steel through that group of people.
One comment read, “HOW DARE HE TRY TO RUN FOR HIS LIFE WHEN PEOPLE ARE READY TO DRAG HIM FROM HIS CAR.”
It certainly sounds scary, right? A horde of zombie criminals trying to drag you out of their car. Who wouldn’t do what my dad did in the same situation?
Everyone can relate to the drive to survive, but, from my vantage, police take advantage of this shared instinct. They spin it into a victim narrative where everyone is out to get them. For the police, the world is a place with dangers lurking around every corner. If they let down their guard even for a moment, they think they’ll be killed.
Was my dad’s life in danger when a bunch of drunk teenagers started surrounding his car? It’s not impossible, but was it likely?
It's hard to say in this instance, but, in general, the police perception of how dangerous their jobs are and the data on police deaths do not align.
According to USA Today, in 2018 police didn’t even make the list of the top-ten most dangerous jobs. Outranking the police in terms of dangerous occupations were recycling workers, aircraft pilots, fisherman, construction workers, farmers, and truck drivers.
On average, around 100 police officers die on the job per year, or 16 per 100,000 officers. According to the FBI, in 2019, 89 officers died. Of those deaths, 40% were accidental, mostly traffic accidents. So, in reality, the likelihood of being violently murdered on the job by a suspected criminal is low.
In 2020, law enforcement suffered 264 fatalities, which counted as the most ever. Those fatalities, however, came from COVID-19. (The TPD recently released a video featuring officers doing the hokey pokey and singing about the importance of social distancing, in which, of course, no one was wearing a mask.) In terms of violent deaths at the hands of criminal suspects, those stats have remained the same.
None of this is to say I don’t empathize with my dad. When he was sitting in that car, I think he probably believed he was in danger—not because that was necessarily true, but because that is how police are trained to read situations.
I know him, and I know his first waking thought isn’t that he wanted to go out and maim people two months ago. He is, however, part of a toxic culture that trivializes violence, and that celebrates it as righteous.
And what’s going on here, I think, is that my dad has been given a limited toolset to address complex social situations.
I think there were definitely a number of better ways to handle the situation with the racers, but I believe a cop will find it difficult to see those possibilities if they only see people as hazards to overcome.
Police in the U.S. see people suspected of crimes in terms of their potential as a threat. They’re taught to respond to some threats with tactical domination, force, and elimination.
That sort of disposition seems useful when responding, say, to a school shooting. But in many other situations the police are called into, that mindset and its associated tactics seem unhelpful and impractical. This fearful mentality creates paranoia, and makes imagined situations become reality through their anticipation.
The thesis of the 21-foot rule is that if someone charges a cop—let’s say with a knife—within 21 feet, then the cop will be unable to draw, aim, and fire their weapon before the suspect can close that distance and potentially kill.
So, in a lot of police encounters, officers who believe in this principle create this tiny little perimeter in their head, and if someone starts acting aggressively and passes that thin and invisible line, then they are trained to believe their life is now in danger.
I highly doubt people in the general public are considering this when interacting with the police, because they mistakenly assume the officer is seeing them first as a person and not as a training exercise.
Given the rates of police deaths on the job, I’m not sure cops can really justify this kind of aggressive stance. And when aggressive stances combine with racism, Manuel Ellis dies. I’m a social worker, and even when I have faced verbal threats to my physical safety, I’ve never had to raise a hand against clients. In my line of work, I take on the responsibility of navigating the nuance of negative speech and behavior directed at me.
The cities and communities these cops serve must hold accountable officers who treat the public as their enemy.
The calls to fire my dad are just. His job is to serve the public, and people were not impressed with his service. We will never bridge the “gap of trust” that police claim to care so much about if we don’t have shared standards for behavior.
I don’t relish saying this. I love my dad, and he has done everything in his power to provide for me, but I want my friends and their families to feel safe in the communities he and the TPD polices. I want them to feel as safe as my family has felt. Though an investigation of the incident is under way, in my experience, police investing police doesn't lead to the accountability necessary to meet that goal.
I have asked my dad to call for any potential future charges to be dropped, and to engage the racers in dialogue to resolve the conflict in good faith. But that does not seem to be happening. Warrants appear to have been served to some of the suspected racers, specifically to confiscate their phones in order to access their social networks. This will only stir up more resentment of the police, and it does not serve the interest of public safety.
Some might see my position on this issue as metaphorically stabbing my dad in the back.
I’m not stabbing him. I’m just refusing to be complicit. A huge issue in American culture is that it’s normal for us not to hold our own friends, families and social circles accountable for their actions.
I think this is a necessary path for us to walk as a family, to acknowledge harm and to make it right instead of waiting for the case to potentially fizzle out in silence. We must protect people we love, but part of loving them is making sure they do the right thing, even if that means facing something unpleasant.
As a society it's time we start really addressing and unpacking the ways we normalize and protect a culture of violence. We have to end this, in our time with our own hands.
We all have a role to play in protecting each other. To my family, I urge you to speak out against this culture of violence. To everyone who lives in Tacoma, I ask you to join in the calls for accountability from the Ellis family, and to be present in creating change.