Three Tacoma police officers charged in the killing of Manuel Ellis
Three Tacoma police officers have been charged with felonies in the March 2020 killing of Manuel Ellis, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Thursday, after multiple investigations into a case that has set off protests and resulted in changes in statewide police accountability laws.
Ferguson charged Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins with second-degree murder and Timothy Rankine with first-degree manslaughter.
They have been booked into the Pierce County Detention and Corrections Center, and they will be arraigned in Pierce County Superior Court on Friday. The State Patrol reports all three turned themselves in voluntarily.
Three other law enforcement officers who helped restrain Ellis on the night he died – Tacoma police officers Masyih Ford and Armando Farinas and Pierce County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Gary Sanders – have not been charged.
The team for the attorney general’s review of Ellis’ death was made up of prosecutors, a representative of his office’s Civil Rights Division and two retired judges.
It is the first time the state Attorney General's Office has criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force.
Gov. Jay Inslee released a statement Thursday after Ferguson's announcement.
“I thank Attorney General Bob Ferguson and his office for a comprehensive investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis last year in Tacoma,” Inslee said.
“We must remain proactive – from those of us in elected office to those providing services in our communities – to turn the tide of injustice," he added. "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.”
While Inslee had praise for the investigation, Tacoma Police Union I.U.P.A. Local 6 had the opposite.
"We are disappointed that facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be a politically motivated witch hunt," the union's statement said. "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."
At an afternoon news conference, Tacoma Police Chief Mike Ake said his department would begin an internal review of the police officers charged with Ellis' death and determine disciplinary action at the end of that review process.
“We recognize the decision will not lessen the pain our community is feeling. Conversations and actions regarding police reform are as important as ever," he said. "We realize we must reduce outcomes that cause pain and diminish trust within our community. We're committed to upholding accountability of individual officers who violate their oath to protect and serve.”
Ake was joined by Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards.
"We don't have all of the answers yet, but we will be sharing more as we learn them. What we have is what the attorney general has shared with us," Woodards said. "For many, this news will be welcoming. 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."
Tacoma City Manager Elizabeth Pauli appeared at the news conference with Ake and Woodards. She released a statement Thursday afternoon. Here's an excerpt:
"I continue to grieve for the family of Manuel Ellis, for the pain and weight they carry, and for our community that is straining to help carry that weight by insisting on change that will ensure accountability and dignity for all," she wrote. "My heart also aches for the men and women of our police department who serve honorably and who have willingly joined our transformation efforts. My job today is to work with our Chief to begin our administrative review process.
"This is a solemn duty," Pauli added. "We undertake this responsibility mindful that more process can lead to more pain and confusion for many in the community.
"My commitment is to continue to do our work in a way that maintains the integrity of the criminal process, and to be responsive to the need to be both thorough and efficient," she explained. "We will share what we can – as soon as we can – as we move through our process steps, ensuring that these next critical steps do not preclude accountability but, by working closely with the Chief, we ensure that our process is part of the path to accountability."
The Washington State Patrol concluded its investigation into Ellis’ death last year but did not say whether any of the officers involved in restraining him should be criminally charged.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office, however, ruled Ellis’ death a homicide, caused primarily by a lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. Methamphetamine and heart disease were contributing factors, the medical examiner said. In this context, “homicide” means the medical examiner determined the death was caused by another person, not necessarily that it was criminal.
The killing of Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, did not attract widespread attention for months, despite Ellis’ family and their supporters raising questions about the official narrative. Only after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis did the case receive more scrutiny. Ellis’ name was chanted alongside Floyd’s at protests for racial justice last summer in the Puget Sound region.
Ellis, who had two children and was known as Manny to his family, struggled for much of his adult life with methamphetamine addiction, schizoaffective disorder, depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to his sister, Monét Carter-Mixon.
Ellis was living in a sober-living home, getting treatment for his mental illness, and attending church regularly at the time of his death, according to his sister and landlord.
Collins and Burbank were the first officers to encounter Ellis after 11 p.m. on March 3, 2020, while they were in their patrol vehicle and Ellis was walking home from a convenience store after buying doughnuts and water.
The officers, in statements to law enforcement officials shortly after the encounter, said they came upon Ellis trying to open the passenger-side door of an occupied car that wasn’t his and, after they called out to him, he began acting aggressively and punched a window of their patrol vehicle.
But witnesses who saw the encounter from their cars said Ellis was having a casual interaction with the officers before Burbank swung open the patrol vehicle’s door, striking Ellis. The officers then acted to restrain him.
The attorney general’s office said in a charging document Thursday that Burbank and Collins used force “without justification.” The document cites video footage taken by witnesses showing the officers tackling and hitting Ellis, Collins putting him in a type of chokehold the attorney general’s office describes as a “lateral vascular neck restraint,” and Burbank shocking Ellis three times with a Taser.
Videos capture Ellis yelling, struggling to get to his feet and putting up his hands in a surrendering pose. He is not seen trying to strike the officers.
Officers eventually hogtied Ellis on the ground using handcuffs and hobbles, and another officer, Farinas, placed a “spit hood” over his head. Ellis’ voice was captured in a video telling an officer, “I can’t breathe, sir.”
Rankine was one of the officers who arrived at the scene after the struggle. The attorney general’s office said Rankine continued to hold Ellis on the ground and apply pressure to his back even after he said he couldn’t breathe.
The attorney general’s office accused all three officers of failing to call for urgent medical aid for Ellis and failing to remove the spit hood as Ellis struggled to breathe, among other allegations.
All three officers declined to speak with investigators from the Washington State Patrol and the attorney general’s office.
Dr. Thomas Clark, who was Pierce County’s medical examiner when Ellis died, said the “gradual nature” of his death pointed to restraint and not a sudden medical event as the cause, according to the attorney general’s office.
And while Ellis had methamphetamine in his system, Clark said emergency personnel observed a slow heart rate and “conditions consistent with pulseless electrical activity,” which did not point to death caused by methamphetamine intoxication, the attorney general’s office said.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department was the first agency to investigate Ellis’ death.But, during its investigation, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department did not interview key eyewitnesses whose accounts contradicted what police said transpired the night Ellis died.
The sheriff’s department also did not reveal that one of its deputies was at the scene and had helped restrain Ellis. Gov. Jay Inslee and other public officials called the officer’s involvement a conflict of interest.
Inslee intervened, handing the investigation to the Washington State Patrol and naming the state’s Attorney General’s office as the charging authority.
The Ellis case is a rare instance of officers facing criminal charges for killing someone in the line of duty in Washington state.
Prior to voters passing Initiative 940 in 2018, prosecutors had to prove an officer had “malice.” Under that standard, only one officer since the 1980s was prosecuted for using deadly force. Everett police officer Troy Meade faced murder and manslaughter charges, but a jury acquitted him in 2010.
After I-940 removed that standard, Auburn police officer Jeff Nelson was charged last year with second-degree murder and first-degree assault for fatally shooting 26-year-old Jesse Sarey.
Inslee signed legislation earlier this year that created Washington state’s first office tasked with independently investigating police killings. Lawmakers cited Ellis’ case, specifically the thrown-out investigation by the sheriff’s department, as an impetus for the legislation.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards has said the city plans to conduct its own investigation into Ellis’ death.
The outcome of a $30 million lawsuit filed by Ellis’ family against the city of Tacoma for his death is still pending.
The Tacoma City Council released a statement Thursday afternoon regarding the attorney general's charging decision. It reads, in part:
"Today, our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of Manuel Ellis. They have had to endure the heartbreaking loss of their son, brother, father and friend. They are now working to process that the Attorney General’s Office has filed felony charges in Pierce County Superior Court, who will serve as the prosecutor in these cases, against three Tacoma Police Department officers involved in the death of Manuel Ellis. According to the Attorney General’s Office, this is the first time they have criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force, and just the second time homicide charges have been filed in Washington against law enforcement officers since Washingtonians adopted Initiative 940 in November 2018.
"The length of time this investigation has taken has weighed heavily on us all, and we are grieved by what the family and loved ones of Manuel Ellis have been through this past year. What has come into sharp focus at this point, in the history of our city and our nation, is that the current culture of law enforcement needs to evolve. It must, if we are to meet the needs of community members that we, as policy makers, are sworn to serve."
The statement goes on to explain what steps the city has taken in the last year to increase police accountability, including equipping officers with body cameras.
"This tragedy is not only a turning point for police reform in Tacoma, but across our state and nation. We, as a community, are resolute to enact changes in policing. No one should fear law enforcement or die in police custody," the statement says. "We encourage every community member to remain engaged, challenge us with hard questions, and continue to hold us accountable as we work to achieve the lasting systemic change we all hope to see in Tacoma going forward."
You can read the Tacoma City Council statement in its entirety here.
The Pierce County Council also responded to the charging news:
"In response to today’s charging announcement by the Attorney General’s Office in the death investigation of Manuel Ellis, the Pierce County Council restates its commitment to see law and justice practiced equitably across the county," it says. "Pierce County has a complex history that includes efforts to achieve greater justice, equality, and understanding among all residents, as well as times when we have fallen short of our values.
"We will face challenges as they come and remain focused on the work—including listening and learning—to develop innovative policies, programs, and services providing every Pierce County resident a better future," it continued.
"As outlined by the Council last summer in our call for a thorough review of the county’s law and justice systems, we value inclusivity and are committed to transparent, open dialogue to achieve those goals."
This is a developing story, and KNKX reporters will update it throughout the day.