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3 Tacoma Police Officers Facing Murder and Manslaughter Charges In Death Of Manuel Ellis

Manuel Ellis died on March 3, 2020, after being handcuffed, tasered, hogtied, and had a spit hood affixed to his face by police while walking home from a 7-11 store.

By Dorian Geiger
Manuel Ellis 1

A trio of Tacoma police officers are facing murder charges in the death of a Black man who died in police custody last year after he was forcibly restrained.

Officers Christopher Burbank, 35, and Matthew Collins, 38, were charged with second-degree murder in the death of Manuel Ellis on Thursday, according to new charges filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Timothy Rankine, 33, is facing a first-degree manslaughter charge.

The three police officers were taken into custody on May 27. 

Ellis died on March 3, 2020, after being handcuffed, tasered, hogtied, and had a spit hood affixed to his face by police while walking home from a 7-11 store. Cell phone and doorbell footage of the fatal arrest showed Ellis’ howling in pain as officers pinned him to the pavement. 

“[I] can’t breathe, sir,” Ellis told police, according to the probable cause statement obtained by Oxygen.com

One officer told Ellis, “shut the f--k up” in response.

Rankine also brushed aside Ellis’ increasingly frantic protests.

“If you’re talking to me, you can breathe just fine,” Rankine, who is Asian American, told Ellis.

Ellis's death was ultimately ruled a homicide by the Pierce County Medical Examiner. He died of a lack of oxygen, according to an autopsy. An enlarged heart and the presence of methamphetamine in his system were listed as contributing factors.

Ellis had schizophrenia and struggled with addiction. He’d been staying in a group home at the time of his death and was active in his community church. He was unarmed at the time of his arrest.

Manuel Ellis 2

The investigation into his death was muddled by a series of missteps by local authorities. Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, who first handled the investigation, initially painted Ellis as an aggressor, claiming officers engaged him after he punched a cruiser’s window.

But a pizza delivery driver and other two motorists who witnessed the deadly incident discredited county authorities’ version of events. The witnesses claimed Ellis had shown “no signs of aggression” or done anything to provoke officers.

“Ellis was not fighting back,” the probable cause statement said. “All three civilian witnesses at the intersection...state that they never saw Ellis strike at the officers.”

Witnesses also described Ellis’s demeanor and exchange with officers as “peaceful” and “respectful.”

It appeared as if “the officers knew [Ellis] from somewhere, maybe,” the probable cause statement reads.

Following the killing, investigators determined that Burbank "abruptly swung" open the passenger door of the squad car, hitting Ellis from behind and knocking him to his knees. Witnesses then described seeing Burbank get on top of Ellis after he collapsed on the ground. 

Sheriff Ed Troyer, then a spokesperson for the agency, also repeatedly denied officers had placed their knee on Ellis’ neck or head. Bystander footage also directly disproved this. It was also later revealed that a sheriff’s deputy was involved in Ellis’ arrest, a fact that wasn’t originally disclosed. 

Gov. Jay Inslee ultimately directed the Washington State Patrol to overtake the investigation. 

Five Tacoma police officers were placed on paid leave following Ellis’s death. The Washington attorney general is continuing its probe of the case.

“The family remains devastated,” James Bible, an attorney for the family, told Oxygen.com on Friday. “They remain heartbroken about what happened. They would much rather have their son, nephew, brother, uncle back in their lives.”

The Ellis family publicly addressed the charging decision during a Thursday press conference.

“The criminal system needs to be made over, from the head — just take it all off,” said Ellis' mother, Marcia Carter-Patterson. “This is about Manuel Elijah Ellis. This is his work. So help us with it.”

Ellis’ death, roughly two months before George Floyd’s killing by police sparked a nationwide uprising, also triggered protests across the Pacific Northwest.

His killing prompted the creation of a state task force to ensure independent reviews of deaths involving law enforcement. In January, more than 100 body cameras were deployed to Tacoma. Last week, Inslee signed sweeping legislation banning no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and neck restraints. 

“We realize we must reduce outcomes that cause pain and diminish trust within our community. We are committed to upholding accountability of individual officers who violate their oath to protect and serve,” interim Tacoma Police Chief Mike Ake said in a written statement this week.

Burbank, Collins, and Rankine were expected to appear in court on Friday. Oxygen.com was unable to immediately reach their attorneys for comment.

Meanwhile, Tacoma’s Police Union blasted the investigation as politically motivated.

“We are disappointed that facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be a politically motivated witch hunt,” the union said Thursday. “We look forward to trial. An unbiased jury will find that the officers broke no laws and, in fact, acted in accordance with the law, their training, and Tacoma Police Department policies. An unbiased jury will not allow these fine public servants to be sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment. Like every community member, our officers are presumed innocent until proven guilty.” 

The union publicly denied any wrongdoing on behalf of law enforcement since the investigation’s early stages.

Tacoma city officials appeared to welcome the news.

“The charges being brought against three of the officers on the scene the night of Manuel Ellis’s death will no doubt be received with strong emotions across our community,” Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said in a statement. “For many, this news will be welcomed. For others, this news will be deeply troubling and difficult to bear. And for more still, the news may prompt any number of mixed emotions. It will no doubt intensify questions about the safety of Black lives here in the City of Tacoma.”

If convicted, Burbank, Collins, and Rankine face a maximum punishment of life in prison, according to Washington law. However, the standard sentencing range for second-degree murder is between 10 and 18 years and 6.5 to 8.5 years for manslaughter. 

The charges mark the first time the Washington Attorney General’s Office has criminally charged police officers for unlawful use of deadly force.

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