Last year, Pierce County Superior Court officials knew they were standing on the precipice of the state’s highest-profile trial in years. The trial of three Tacoma police officers charged with murder and manslaughter was just months away, and Pierce County and Tacoma were blindly feeling their way through preparations.
There was much to consider: a courtroom with limited seating but high media and public interest, the prospect of civil unrest during the trial or after the verdict, and the potential for a chaotic atmosphere could affect the normal operations of government.
But a chance meeting at a conference for court administrators last year took the kaleidoscope of challenges and drew them into sharp focus.
Hennepin County (Minnesota) District Judge Peter Cahill, who presided over the criminal trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, convicted of murdering George Floyd, told Pierce County Superior Court Administrator Chris Gaddis that his staff would need to manage the extra attention wisely and be mindful of its effect on employees. The Chauvin trial was replete with spectacle and bore similarities to the looming trial of the Tacoma officers.
Gaddis pulled Cahill aside and said, “‘Hey, we’re curious if we can bend your ear about lessons learned so we don’t have to rewrite the playbook’. They were very gracious, agreed that we can come out. We weren’t the first, and we won’t be the last, I’m sure.”
Tacoma police officers Matthew Collins, 40, and Christopher “Shane” Burbank, 38, face charges of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, and Timothy Rankine, 34, is charged with first-degree manslaughter. All three have pleaded not guilty and are free on bail.
Jury selection is nearly complete, and opening statements could begin as early as Tuesday in a trial expected to take up to three months.
The charges stem from the March 3, 2020, death of Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man. Video recordings captured Ellis pleading that he couldn’t breathe as a series of officers took turns on his back while Ellis was lying prone. He died by homicide from oxygen deprivation, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner.
A Minneapolis jury in April 2021 convicted Chauvin of second-degree murder for the suffocation death of Floyd, which happened about six weeks after Ellis’s death and vaulted America into a summer of protests and reckoning over police treatment of Black people.
Like Ellis, bystander videos showed Floyd repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe while Chauvin continued to apply pressure. Chauvin was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison.
Chauvin’s trial happened during the COVID-19 shutdown and was the only in-person trial at the time in Hennepin County. Millions tuned in to Court TV to watch.
Pierce County has different challenges, including holding a trial in a packed courthouse while carrying out business as usual. Court TV has not approached Pierce County about airing the Tacoma officers’ trial, signaling less national interest than Chauvin’s trial.
Based on the conversation between Gaddis and Judge Cahill at the conference, 14 municipal and county employees, including Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff, who’s presiding over the trial, went to Hennepin County for training sessions.
They splintered into groups with Hennepin County employees. Emergency personnel were briefed on how to prepare for protests. Communication staff learned internal messages were as important as external ones. Court staff got guidance on accommodating outsized public and media interest in a case, and how to herd an extra-large jury pool.
“I understand flooding. I understand earthquakes, but I don’t necessarily understand everyone’s responsibilities in the courts so well,” Amy Gillespie, deputy director of the Pierce County Emergency Management Department, said. Her talks with Hennepin County officials left her more prepared for whatever may happen during the trial or immediately after it.
Among the lessons learned: offer the public an allotted number of seats in the courtroom each day, with an online registry, something Hennepin County did not do. And those who can’t get in the courtroom have the option of watching a livestream online. Based on Hennepin County’s experience, Pierce County set up a media pool arrangement that will send daily trial coverage to news outlets.
Some of the lessons from Hennepin County were more subtle.
“What really left a lasting impression on me was the effort, or lack thereof, being mindful of their court employees in particular,” Libby Catalinich, Pierce County’s director of communications, said. “It was very difficult to be affiliated with the Derek Chauvin trial, and the feedback that I received was there was not space or a recognition of the fact that we all bring our whole selves to work every day — our perspectives, our lived experiences — it’s like they were invisible.”
Black employees of Hennepin County reported feeling ignored or not acknowledged, and over a 17-month span two-thirds of the court’s staff left their jobs. Pierce County is trying to counter a similar result by putting out regular dispatches to employees and resources to cope with added stress during the trial.
Catalinich said Pierce County is deliberately avoiding some of the pitfalls Hennepin County stepped in, including with a simple adjustment of language.
“At Hennepin County, they were using words like ‘the incident’ or ‘the death,’ so it didn’t ring true with employees,” Catalinich said.
“We talk about the death of Manuel Ellis. We talk about the three officers that have been charged with murder or manslaughter. People refer to it as the ‘Manny Ellis trial,’ but he’s not on trial.”
Pierce County Emergency Management activated its emergency operations center before the officers’ trial for the first time since its pandemic response, Gillespie said. Its priority is to monitor the prospect of civil unrest. It previously did so the day that Ellis’s death was ruled a homicide and tracked protest activities, including those that called for justice in Ellis’s name.
Public records obtained by The Seattle Times showed the federal fusion center that is staffed by law enforcement throughout the region — including the Tacoma Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department — spied on the social media activity of Ellis’s family and their supporters during that activation of the emergency operations center.
Gillespie said there are no plans to immediately surveil social media accounts in that way during the trial, but that could change if emergency planning personnel gather intelligence suggests that large-scale protests are taking shape.
“We’re ready, and we want people to express themselves, as long as they’re safe and don’t harm anyone else,” Gillespie said.
Legal wrangling pushed the Tacoma officers’ trial from the fall of 2022 until now. In the meantime, Pierce County District Court tested what it gathered from Hennepin County when Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer was tried for misdemeanor false reporting last December in the same courtroom where the Tacoma officers will face their trial. Troyer was acquitted.
A sample of receipts for the Hennepin County trip obtained by The Seattle Times showed that the cost was around $1,000 per person to attend. The lone payment to Hennepin County: a basket of uniquely Washington treats — salmon, chocolate-covered cherries, and jellies — that Gaddis paid for himself.
As soon as the contingent from the Tacoma area returned, the planning began.
“This is a pretty significant moment in time for our community,” Catalinich said. “We’ve taken it seriously and respectfully.”