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'I can't breathe, sir': Family of Manuel Ellis renews call for state investigation amid new video

Parker Miles Blohm
Family members of Manuel Ellis, who was killed while in custody of Tacoma police March 3, gather alongside attorney James Bible for a news conference Tuesday. Bible released a new video he says shows Ellis "begging for his life" in his final moments.

UPDATE, June 10: Gov. Jay Inslee says he's convinced the Pierce County Sheriff's Department can't lead the investigation into Manuel Ellis' death. The governor is working with Attorney General Bob Ferguson to decide how the investigation will proceed. Read the latest developments here

The family of Manuel Ellis has released a new video from the night Ellis was killed in police custody. Their attorney says it shows a man "begging for his life." 

Ellis, a Black man, died on March 3. A medical examiner’s report recently made public ruled his death a homicide, as a result of a lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. 

In the video shown to reporters during a news conference Tuesday, attorney James Bible says Ellis can be heard saying “I can’t breathe, sir” in the final moments of his life. The video came from home security footage, obtained from the homeowner. 

“‘Sir.’ A clear sign that it’s not only a struggle for breath, but an attempt to still be respectful in your last moments of life,” Bible said. “A sign that he wasn’t the aggressive person that law enforcement claimed he was.” 

A spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which is leading the independent investigation, has said Ellis attacked officers the night of March 3.

The Tacoma Police Department released a statement last week summarizing the officers’ account of what happened. They reported observing Ellis in the roadway that night trying to open doors of occupied vehicles. Upon contacting him, a physical altercation ensued. Officers determined that Ellis needed medical aid and contacted Tacoma Fire, according to the statement.

A medical examiner's report, obtained by KNKX Public Radio, shows that Ellis was dying within two minutes of encountering the officers. They reported that Ellis attacked their vehicle at about 11:21 p.m. At 11:23, after officers used a Taser and handcuffed him, Ellis said he couldn’t breathe.

A minute later, the report states, Ellis’ legs were restrained and a so-called “spit hood” was placed over his mouth. He was placed in a “side recovery position at some point then back to (his) stomach.”

Officers reportedly requested medical aid at 11:25 p.m., four minutes after making first contact with Ellis. The medical unit evaluated him nine minutes later, noting that he was “unconscious with minimal respiratory drive, and deteriorating.”

Ellis was pronounced death shortly after midnight, according to the report, after efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.

The report also says drugs, including an “extremely high” methamphetamine concentration, and a dilated heart contributed to Ellis’ death. 

The Tacoma Police Department said in its statement that it is cooperating with the county investigation and prosecutors, who are tasked with deciding whether the killing was justified. 

Credit Courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective
Manuel Ellis

Gov. Jay Inslee, at the urging of Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and the City Council, has said the Washington State Patrol chief and the state attorney general will review the work done by investigators and prosecutors. 

But Ellis’ family and their attorney say that review doesn’t go far enough. They’re calling for a state-led independent investigation, not a review after the fact. 

Bible, the attorney, said the sheriff’s office has been evasive and misleading in the information it has provided during the course of its investigation. 

“With every step, with every move, with every thing that we’ve done thus far to discredit what they’ve said, they’ve changed their story,” Bible said. “We can’t let offending agencies and their friends investigate each other.” 

Pierce County has said its sheriff's office won't comment on active investigations. 

The Tacoma officers involved in the incident were placed on administrative leave last week, after the medical examiner’s report on Ellis’ death became public — weeks after it was certified May 11. The officers include Christopher Burbank, 34; Matthew Collins, 37; Masyih Ford, 28; and Timothy Rankine, 31. Two of them are white, one is Black and another is Asian. Their tenure with the department ranges from a year to five years.  

'Sir.' A clear sign that it's not only a struggle for breath, but an attempt to still be respectful in your last moments of life.

Mayor Woodards says she believes the officers should be fired and prosecuted. The union representing them fired back in a statement Monday, saying city officials are “interfering with the independent investigation by spreading inflammatory and false statements.”

“We are not racists. We are not white supremacists. We did not lynch a man,” Tacoma Police Union Local No. 6 said in its statement. “The public, Mr. Ellis’ family, and our officers deserve untainted facts — the truth — to come out.”

Woodards has recently called for Tacoma’s city manager to allocate funding for body cameras. 

“She’s late,” Bible said Tuesday, adding that she and other officials have failed the public. “They’ve failed the public in not pushing fast enough for body cams and in-car dash cams.” 

Bible said if the officers were wearing cameras on March 3, it would have changed their behavior and “we probably wouldn’t be here right now.”

Marcia Carter, Ellis’ mother, was present alongside other members of her family before the video was played for reporters at Tuesday's news conference. She soon left the room, visibly upset.

“This is such a traumatic moment for the family. And with every new event and each piece of new information, it becomes more heartbreaking,” Bible said, holding back tears. “Life was taken here. It was wrong. It was done in the taxpayers’ names. And we’re asking the people of this region to actually do something about it.”

Attorney James Bible speaks to reporters alongside the family of Manuel Ellis on Tuesday, at the Emerald Queen Riverboat in Tacoma.
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX
Attorney James Bible speaks to reporters alongside the family of Manuel Ellis on Tuesday, at the Emerald Queen Riverboat in Tacoma.

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.