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New video shows officer putting arm around Manuel Ellis' neck, pressing knee into his body

Manuel Ellis, who was killed while in Tacoma police custody March 3. Ellis is remembered as a musician and father whose life was marked by  by pain, struggle, and a search for redemption.
Courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective

A newly released video taken by a witness appears to show a Tacoma police officer wrap his arm around Manuel Ellis' neck and then press a knee into Ellis' body.

The video reveals new details of the struggle that preceded Ellis' death on a South Tacoma street the night of March 3. The case has gotten increasing attention and scrutiny amid nationwide protests decrying police brutality against Black people.

Ellis, 33, who was Black, was recorded in a separate video saying, "I can't breathe, sir," after officers restrained him.

The Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis' death a homicide, attributing it to a lack of oxygen "as a result of physical restraint, positioning" and the placement of a "spit hood" over his mouth. 

James Bible, an attorney representing Ellis' family, said a man recorded the video from his car before sending it to Bible. The man who recorded the video is choosing to remain anonymous, but plans to cooperate with an investigation into Ellis' death, Bible said. 

The video, silent and less than a minute long, was first published by The (Tacoma) News Tribune. KNKX Public Radio also obtained a copy.

It starts with two officers already in the middle of a physical struggle with Ellis on the side of Ainsworth Avenue South. 

As Ellis tries to get to his feet, an officer appears to wrap his forearm around Ellis' neck from behind. Ellis puts his hands up as a second officer appears to use a Taser on Ellis.

Ellis and the first officer then fall to the ground. The officer appears to keep his arm around Ellis' neck for 10 to 12 seconds before Ellis seems to relax or go limp, and officers roll Ellis onto his stomach.

An officer then appears to press a knee into Ellis' body and holds it there as Ellis kicks and twists in the street. It's unclear if the officer's knee is going into Ellis' head, neck, shoulder or back. 

"What I notice in this video is the dramatic level of violence that’s present in the officers’ actions," Bible, the attorney, told KNKX.

A Tacoma police spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Monday night.

In a statement Sunday, before the video was released, Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell said he would not comment on the case, or make any decisions about the officers involved, until an independent investigation is complete.

"I have offered my most sincere condolences to Mr. Ellis’ family, made public statements along the way and been very clear on the process going forward," Ramsdell said. 

Gov. Jay Inslee has called for an independent probe into Ellis' death, yet it remains to be seen what agency will perform the investigation.

The four Tacoma police officers who were at the scene of Ellis' death have been placed on administrative leave. Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards has called for them to be fired. They are Christopher Burbank, 34; Matthew Collins, 37; Masyih Ford, 28; and Timothy Rankine, 31.

Police said officers approached Ellis after seeing him in the street trying to open the doors of occupied vehicles. Police said that led to an "altercation."

Ellis' sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, said Ellis had a history of using methamphetamine to self-medicate trauma from childhood, and he was taking anti-psychotic medication for schizophrenia. The medical examiner said methamphetamine intoxication contributed to Ellis' death. 

His landlord, Cedric Armstrong, told KNKX that Ellis was getting treatment for addiction and heavily involved in his church, where he played drums at an event hours before he died.

The video is the third to emerge of the scene since Ellis' case gained national attention amid protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

The first video to emerge, taken from another witness in a vehicle, appears to show an officer punching Ellis at another point in the struggle as the witness shouts, "Stop hitting him, just arrest him."

A second video, taken from a home security camera, captured the audio of Ellis saying, "I can't breathe, sir." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.