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Puyallup Tribe played key role in WA police accountability push

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Monday, March 18, 2024   

By Frank Hopper for Yes! Magazine.
Broadcast version by Eric Tegethoff for Washington News Service reporting for the Yes! Magazine-Public News Service Collaboration

This month marks four years since Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old African American man, was killed by Tacoma police. Despite the all-too-familiar injustice of the killing, something happened in the aftermath that had never before occurred in Washington state: The police who killed him were put on trial for murder.

Although the officers were found not guilty, the trial itself would not have happened at all if not for the Puyallup tribe and their years-long struggle to change the law that protected police in Washington from being prosecuted for killing suspects in the line of duty.

The Puyallup tribe of Washington has always been a protector of Native rights, especially during the Red Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They fought back when the state of Washington tried to take away their treaty-protected fishing rights during the fishing wars of the 1970s.

They also fought back against federal termination and relocation policies with the 1969 takeover of Alcatraz and the 1970 takeover of Seattle's Fort Lawton. They fought alongside the Oglala Lakota against the federal support of a corrupt puppet tribal government at the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee.

They never backed down at these and many other direct actions. So when one of their own, Puyallup tribal member Jacqueline Salyers, was brutally and senselessly gunned down by Tacoma police in 2016, they consulted with the elders who had organized and led many of the tribe's early direct actions.

The result was the passage of the nation's first police accountability bill, Washington state's Initiative 940, which removed the immunity the police once had that historically allowed them to murder citizens with impunity.

Jackie's Murder

On Jan. 3, 2016, Puyallup tribal member Lisa Earl got a call from a Tacoma police detective about her daughter, Jacqueline Salyers, who went by Jackie. Earl was at the Puyallup tribe's Little Wild Wolves Youth Center where she worked as a youth coordinator.

"He asked if I knew the whereabouts of my daughter," Earl recalls, "because she was known to be with Kenneth Wright, who had a warrant out for his arrest and they needed to get ahold of him."

Earl explained to the detective that she and her family were also looking for Salyers. Kenneth Wright, Salyers' abusive boyfriend, had been keeping her away from her family, according to Earl. He had even threatened Earl's life, telling Salyers if her mother didn't stop bothering him, he would kill her.

"I was afraid for my life. I told the detective, 'I want you to catch him!'" Earl explains. "'I want my daughter back! I want her to come home!'"

A few weeks later, on January 28, Salyers was shot four times by Officer Scott Campbell. He said she had tried to run him over while he and another officer were attempting to arrest her boyfriend. She died a few minutes later, just after midnight on January 29.

Later that day, James Rideout, Salyers' uncle and Earl's brother, heard about the shooting and found his sister at the medical examiner's office, hysterical. He drove to the crime scene in East Tacoma and found the entire area cordoned off. He couldn't get anywhere near where the shooting happened. A local news reporter offhandedly told him he thought the shooting was going to be deemed justified.

"Why would you say that?" Rideout remembers saying. "They haven't even investigated this case!"

The reporter knew the facts weren't important; police were protected from prosecution.

The Alleged Cover-Up

According to a 2021 story in the Tacoma News Tribune, official police reports state an informant had told Officer Campbell of Wright's whereabouts. Campbell and another officer located Wright's vehicle and pulled up in front of it. Salyers and Wright were inside. After seeing Wright, who was considered armed and dangerous, they drew their weapons and approached the vehicle, screaming at Wright to put his hands in the air.

Salyers, who was in the driver's seat, was startled, turned the ignition on, and began driving away. Campbell relates he felt sure Salyers was trying to run him over, although she was only "crawling" according to Wright.

Campbell fired seven rounds at Salyers. She was hit four times, two bullets penetrating her abdomen and head.

Right from the beginning, Rideout could tell the official story didn't add up. A bullet hole was present in the driver's door, indicating Campbell was not in front of the car when he fired.

According to an official investigation by Tacoma police, after the shooting Wright grabbed a rifle, crawled over Salyers' body, got out the driver's side door, and ran off. Campbell and his partner, Officer Aaron Joseph, chased Wright, but apparently lost him and broke off pursuit, supposedly afraid Wright would fire at them from a hidden position.

Mysteriously, a police surveillance camera mounted in the area that should have captured the entire event "malfunctioned" according to police reports.

The Community Response

Salyers had been active in the Puyallup tribe. Many had grown up with her and remembered her loving personality and concern for others.

Adding to the tragedy, the medical examiner determined she was pregnant at the time of the shooting. Earl and her family not only lost a beloved daughter, they also lost a new member of the next generation.

"You need to do something," Rideout remembers telling the tribal council. "And they did. They responded."

Council members Sylvia Miller and Tim Reynon, along with tribal elder Ramona Bennett and other influential members of the community, began meeting weekly at the Little Wild Wolves Youth Center to plan how the tribe would respond.

The elders had experience with activism going back to the 1960s. Over the years they had fought with police over many issues, including fishing and land rights. They had been beaten, tear-gassed, and incarcerated. They knew what they were facing, and they were not afraid.

Bennett, now 85, was a veteran of many battles, standoffs, and occupations, and she suspected a possible cover-up in Salyers' case, after the police realized what they'd done.

"'Now look what you did! You killed that stupid Indian girl!' That's what Ramona Bennett said [the police] would say," Earl recalls.

The Birth of Initiative 940

Bennett knew from experience that change would only come about through publicity, cooperation with other groups, and community support. So she recommended they stage a march. On March 16, 2016, Earl led a procession of nearly 300 people from the Puyallup tribe's administration building to the federal courthouse in downtown Tacoma.

To her surprise, many other families of police shooting victims joined them in support.

"We didn't have any clue until Jackie was killed that there were so many others out there going through the same thing as we were," Earl remembers.

Over time, attendance at the weekly community meetings at the tribe's youth center grew. Families of other police murder victims shared their stories and discussed what they could do to address the problem.

One supporter was Rick Williams, the older brother of John T. Williams, who had been shot by Seattle police officer Ian Birk on Aug. 30, 2010. According to Birk, Williams, 50, was carrying an open pocket knife and refused to drop it. Williams was a seventh-generation master carver of the Ditidaht tribe who was carving a board as he walked down the street.

Dashcam footage of the incident clearly indicated that after Birk exited his patrol car, he almost immediately fired at the nearly blind and partially deaf Williams.

King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced he could not charge Birk with murder due to a clause in state law, enacted in 1986 during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, that said unless it can be proven a police officer acted with evil intent or malice, they cannot be prosecuted for killing suspects. Since malice is a mental state, it is nearly impossible to prove its presence in a court of law, giving police in Washington nearly complete immunity to kill suspects.

Rick Williams had since been working to change the law. He campaigned and collected signatures for Washington state Initiative 873, known as the John T. Williams Bill. It was written by police reform advocate Lisa Hayes after the unjustified Seattle police shooting of Che Taylor in February 2016.

The initiative failed to get enough signatures to be put on the ballot but later became the template the families at the Puyallup community meetings used to draft Initiative 940.

Along with the families of many other police shooting victims and the financial support of every federally recognized tribe in Washington state, the Puyallup tribe successfully gathered 360,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. And in 2018 Washington voters passed Initiative 940 into law.

How the New Law Affected the Police Killing of Manuel Ellis

Manuel Ellis died in 2020 while Tacoma police held him face down on the ground, put a bag over his head, and kneeled on his neck, causing him to die of hypoxia, or lack of breath, just as in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. If his death had happened before the passage of Initiative 940, the three officers responsible for his death, Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank, and Timothy Rankine, would never have been charged with a crime or put on trial.

Due to the new law, however, Collins and Burbank were charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter and Rankine was charged with manslaughter.

All three officers were acquitted on Dec. 21, 2023, by a mostly white jury, and the city of Tacoma paid them $500,000 each to resign. This outcome is considered "perverse" by Ellis' family and supporters.

Chester Earl, Salyers' cousin, feels the issue of white privilege played a major role in the verdict. He thinks the white jurors had no experience dealing with police racism and violence. He feels they probably believe the police are always right.

"You got to remember, all's we been able to do with 940 is give the prosecutors the opportunity to charge and convict and take them to court. We can't make prosecutors argue it in a certain way," he explains.

The fight for true police reform will likely take years and will require a major shift in how the public feels about the role of law enforcement in our society. Salyers' tragic murder, however, caused a major step in that direction, according to her uncle, James Rideout.

"What makes me most proud," he says, "is she brought the best out in me to do something that has never been done in the history of the United States, and that's to change this law for the protection of our future generations. And I thank her, and it'll be a lifetime before I can tell her, 'You changed our entire tribe and community forever, and you will always, always be remembered. We will never forget you. Your life mattered.'"

Frank Hopper wrote this article for Yes! Magazine.

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