Three Tacoma police officers charged in killing of Manuel Ellis | Washington state


The Washington state attorney general’s office has filed felony charges against three police officers in the killing of Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old Black father of two, who, moments before his death, called out: “I can’t breathe.”

This is the first time the office has filed criminal charges against police officers for unlawful use of deadly force.

Tacoma police officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins, who are white, were charged with second-degree murder, while Timothy Rankine, who is Asian, was charged with first-degree manslaughter. The maximum sentence for both offenses is life in prison. It was unclear whether any of the three officers had retained a lawyer.

“This is a blessing that there are three officers charged, but it’s hard for me to be happy,” said Monet Carter-Mixon, Ellis’s sister, during a press conference on Thursday in Tacoma. “It’s hard for me to want to celebrate because there’s so many things that are still currently being overlooked. There’s so much work that needs to be done.”

The decision came more than a year after the Pierce county medical examiner’s office ruled Ellis’s death a homicide, and followed months of contradicting information from law enforcement officials, who framed Ellis as the aggressor, and eyewitness testimony and video that showed the opposite.

According to the statement of probable cause, Ellis had been heading home about 11.20pm on 3 March in Tacoma, about 35 miles south of Seattle, after getting a snack from a convenience store on 3 March when he encountered Tacoma police officers Burbank and Collins. The three of them were seen talking when witnesses described one of the officers using his police car door to shove Ellis to the ground.

Video of the scene and statements from eyewitnesses depict the officers tackling and repeatedly striking Ellis. He was hit with a taser multiple times, hog-tied, and at least one officer’s knee was put on his neck or back. Collins also reportedly applied a “lateral vascular neck restraint”, or chokehold to him.

In a series of Ring videos previously released, Ellis can be heard screaming: “I can’t breathe, sir. I can’t breathe,” followed by an officer saying: “Shut the fuck up.”

The statement referenced multiple eyewitnesses who said Ellis was not fighting back against the officers. It added, “The video depicts Ellis struggling at times against the officers’ restraints, but does not show Ellis attempting to strike the officers at any point.”

Rankine arrived at the scene shortly after the initial encounter, according to the statement. Although Ellis was already in handcuffs, Rankine reportedly put all of his weight on him – his right knee on the top of his spine and his left knee on his lower back.

“After applying pressure to Ellis’s back, Rankine recalled hearing Ellis ‘making really strange animal grunting noises’, and then hearing him say in a ‘very calm, normal voice’ that he could not breathe,” the statement said. “Rankine responded that ‘if you’re talking to me, you can breathe just fine.’”

James Bible, a lawyer for Ellis’ family, highlighted the narrative initially presented by law enforcement during a press conference Thursday: “The narrative was that those officers were in a struggle for their life. It wasn’t until videos started to come forward that showed a different story. It wasn’t until witnesses started to come forward that showed a different story.”

The Pierce county sheriff’s department was initially leading the investigation into his death. But in June, Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, ordered a new investigation, after it was revealed that the Pierce county sheriff’s office had officers at the scene of Ellis’s arrest on 3 March.

“I know it has taken much, much longer to get to this point than any of us ever expected or wanted,” said Tacoma mayor Victoria Woodards, during a press conference Thursday. “But I also believe it allows for the thorough independent review that Manny Ellis’ family and the Tacoma community deserved.”

As the criminal process moves forward, she said the city manager will begin an administrative review to determine whether to move forward with further disciplinary action of the officers.

Last June, officers Collins, Burbank and Rankine were placed on administrative leave.

The Tacoma Police Union pushed back against the charges, saying in a statement Thursday that the officers followed the law, their training and police department policies.

“We are disappointed that facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be a politically motivated witch hunt,” the statement said.

The county medical examiner’s office reported that Ellis died due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint. Other factors that may have contributed to his death included methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease.

As protests against police brutality and racism spread across the US last year, following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, Ellis and the circumstances surrounding his death became a key rallying cry in the Pacific north-west.

In a statement Thursday, Inslee thanked the attorney general, Bob Ferguson, for what he described as a “comprehensive investigation”.

He added: “We must remain proactive – from those of us in elected office to those providing services in our communities – to turn the tide of injustice. Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice,’ and it takes all of us to usher it into existence.”

Marcia Carter, Ellis’ mother, said during a press conference Thursday, “My heart is heavy.” But she said, she felt like her son had been chosen by God: “He wanted to expose the corruption that is in our city council, this whole state,” she said. “The criminal system needs to made over.”



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