June 22, 2021

Washington attorney general charges three police officers in killing of Tacoma man

4 min read

Three Tacoma police officers face felony charges ranging from manslaughter to murder from Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson for their alleged killing of Tacoma resident Manuel Ellis. 

On March 3, 2020, Ellis died while being detained by two Tacoma Police officers on his way home from church. According to a report by the Washington State Patrol (WSP), Ellis conversed with officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins, who were stopped at a red light in their patrol car.

Based on testimony and eyewitnesses at the scene, Burbank knocked Ellis to the ground after swinging open his passenger door. The two officers allegedly struck Ellis multiple times, pinning him to the ground as Collins wrapped an arm around Ellis’ neck. Video and audio files obtained from eyewitnesses, the report states, show Burbank tasering Ellis for about five seconds as Collins continued to apply pressure to Ellis’ neck. There was no video of Ellis striking at officers during the incident.

Police records obtained by the attorney general’s office show Collins tasered Ellis a second time after the two officers requested backup. The report states the two officers reapplied pressure to Ellis’s body as eyewitnesses left the scene. A doorbell security camera in the area recorded Ellis telling the officers he could not breathe, documents state, as one of the officers tells him to “Shut the f***, man,” in response.

A third Tacoma police officer, Timothy Rankine, arrived at the scene along with 19 other officers. The report states Rankine applied pressure to Ellis’s back as Ellis’s arms and legs were “hogtied” together. Ellis also told Rankine he could not breathe. After Ellis began violently resisting, a spit hood was placed on his head by an unknown officer. Its instructions read “Do not use on anyone that is having difficulty breathing.” The WSP reports Rankine is a six-year Army veteran trained in combat lifesaving techniques and crisis intervention. 

Ellis was declared dead at the scene by medics around 11:27 pm. PST or around 13 minutes after encountering Collins and Burbank. Tacoma police Sgt. Michael Lim reportedly requested medical assistance for Ellis. He did not explain his decision to investigators.

The state patrol reports Collins and Burbank, both eight-year Army veterans, were trained in crisis intervention, based on Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission records. The two told colleagues Ellis was attempting to break into a vehicle when he attacked them, contrary to the WSP’s findings.

“Officer Burbank and Officer Collins said that they exited the patrol vehicle to contact the subject when the subject immediately began swinging his fists toward them, striking them both multiple times to include in the face,” Lim told investigators. “The subject continued to assault the officers as they attempted to take him into custody by punching and kicking them.”

The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’s death was a homicide later in 2020. His family filed a $30 million lawsuit against the city of Tacoma in August.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards further called for the officers involved to resign. On Thursday, the mayor said the city would conduct an administrative review of the officers involved.

“The truth, no matter where you might stand on the Attorney General’s decision, is that Manuel Ellis was a son, a brother, a father, a churchgoer, and a friend to many,” Woodards said in a statement. “The loss of his life is tragic and heartbreaking. What remains unequivocally true is this: Black lives matter.”

Initially, the investigation into Ellis’s death was conducted by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office. Gov. Jay Inslee directed the WSP to investigate Ellis’s death some months later and referred the charging decision to the attorney general. 

Burbank and Collins were both charged with second-degree murder in Pierce County Superior Court on Thursday. Rankine was charged with first-degree manslaughter. The Tacoma Police Department announced it is conducting its internal investigation into all officers involved in the incident.

In a statement, Tacoma Police Union members expressed confidence the three officers will be cleared of wrongdoing.

“We are disappointed that facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be a politically motivated witch hunt,” union members wrote. “An unbiased jury will not allow these fine public servants to be sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment.”

If convicted, the standard sentencing range for second-degree murder with no prior criminal history is punishable by up to 18 years in prison. First-degree manslaughter with no previous criminal history comes with a sentence of up to 8.5 years. The maximum penalty for both offenses is life in prison. 

The decision marks the first time in Washington’s history that the state attorney general has filed criminal charges for unlawful use of force.

Police killings around Washington have inspired the state legislature to pass police reform bills this past session, including bans on neck restraints and chokeholds.

This article was originally posted on Washington attorney general charges three police officers in killing of Tacoma man

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