Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Episode 5: The Other Side of the Line

KNKX_WalkHomelogoV3.jpg
Lance Kagey Of Rotator Creative

Four Tacoma police officers each had their own journeys to 96th and Ainsworth. And so did the department they worked for.

The 2020 police killing of Manuel "Manny" Ellis, a Black man in Tacoma, brought a reckoning to Washington State and has set up what promises to be one of the highest-profile trials in Pacific Northwest history.

The story unfolds in The Walk Home, a podcast by KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times, with support from NPR. It's sponsored by MovetoTacoma.com, the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation and Group Health Foundation.

Find more information at thewalkhomepodcast.org.


Links to source materials

Dive deeper into this story and our reporting:


Transcript

Note: The Walk Home was produced as an audio series. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the series. This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

Episode 5: “The Other Side of the Line”

Mayowa Aina: This podcast includes descriptions of violence. Please take care while listening.

Right after Manny Ellis is killed, four Tacoma police officers get sent home on paid leave. That’s standard when police kill someone. In the days that follow, records show those officers start texting each other. We have voice actors reading these messages.

Voice actor [as Rankine]: “All the bad thoughts were going through my head. And I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from getting to you guys.”

Aina: Timothy Rankine is one of the officers who arrived late to the scene. He’s checking in with the one of the officers who first encountered Manny, Matthew Collins. Collins replies:

Voice actor [as Collins]: “Thanks, bro. I appreciate it.”

Voice actor [as Rankine]: “No problem. I never did get to ask you how things are at home with the newborn…”

Voice actor [as Collins]: “Good, man. Just crazy but we love having all the kids.”

Aina: Rankine also texts with his partner, Masyih Ford.

Voice actor [as Rankine]: “We didn’t do anything wrong and I would have driven even faster if I could. I would also have done what needed to be done for Burbank and Collins.”

Voice actor [as Ford]: “I honestly replayed the call over in my head. There isn’t anything that I would do differently.”

Voice actor [as Rankine]: “Same. I made this promise to myself when I started this job that I would do everything in my power never to lose a co-worker if I can help it. I’ve lost too many brothers overseas.”

Aina: After that, the officers tell their versions of events to investigators from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. A couple weeks later, they go back to work. Our senior producer, Will James, looked into each of these officers’ histories, and he takes it from here.

[Clip of chanting: “What’s his name? Manny Ellis. Say it louder. Manny Ellis.”]

Will James: Three months after Manny’s death, the George Floyd protests explode, Manny’s case gets more attention, and the City of Tacoma does something unusual. It puts the four officers on paid leave again. And, this time, Tacoma releases their names to the public. Headshots of the four officers — smiling into the camera, in their blue police uniforms — are in newspapers and on TV. Chirstopher “Shane” Burbank, 34, white. Matthew Collins, 37, white. Masyih Ford, 28, Black. Timothy Rankine, 31, Asian-American. Manny’s family and activists are calling them out, by name, on social media.

Archival (news clip:) “Ellis’ family wants the officers to be arrested.”

James: Tacoma’s mayor calls for them to be fired.

Archival (Victoria Woodards) in news clip: “Fired and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

James: And in the middle of this whirlwind, a new text message drops into their phones. It’s from a co-worker.

Voice actor [as Brett Beall]: “Hey guys, it’s Brett. Just wanted to reach out and let you guys know the entire second floor backs you.”

Patrick Malone: “This text was from another officer who'd previously killed on the job and been exonerated.”

James: Patrick Malone is an investigative reporter with The Seattle Times.

Malone: “It was offering encouragement to the officers that were placed on leave initially following Ellis's death, like ‘I've been through this thing, you're going through this thing.’ It says, ‘The entire second floor backs you.’ And the second floor that refers to the rank and file. That's where the patrol officers like these guys, that's where their desks are. That's where they fill out reports and stuff. And so it's saying, ‘You've got the support of the backbone of this department. You know, it goes on to say something else that goes maybe a little farther.”

Voice actor [as Brett Beall]: “You guys are studs and did nothing wrong.”

Malone: “It doesn't just say, ‘Hey, you guys were justified in your treatment of Ellis.’ It called them studs. You know, so it celebrated this.”

James: When Manny arrived at the corner of 96th and Ainsworth, he arrived with the weight of all this history: the weight of being a Black man dealing with trauma, mental illness, and the criminal justice system. These four officers each had their own journeys to that street corner and just like Manny, it wasn’t just them that arrived there. What collided with Manny’s life that night was the history and culture of their police department, of the city they worked for, even policing itself.

From KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times, this is The Walk Home. Episode Five: The Other Side of the Line.

[Cagney and Lacey theme song starts]

Valencia Brooks: “You know, I probably was an unusual kid because I loved Cagney and Lacey. I’m  pretty sure I've seen every episode.”

James: Growing up in Michigan, Valencia Brooks loved watching police on TV. But not the typical shows about catching bad guys. For some reason, this kid liked a show about the moral dramas and internal politics of policing.

Archival (“Cagney and Lacey” clip): “Sergeant Cagney.”

James: The messy stuff.

Archival (“Cagney and Lacey” clip): “I’m Detective Lacey, Ms. Richards.”

Brooks: “You could actually watch Cagney and Lacey today and those same themes that that show dealt with are still relevant today: racism, gender, discrimination.”

Archival (“Cagney and Lacey” clip): “You’re right, Mary Beth, huh? You’re right, I admit it. I am prejudiced.”

Archival (“Cagney and Lacey” clip): “So it wasn’t a racial killing because we don’t have that particular problem here in New York City, right?”

Brooks: “I was just obsessed with that show. And I kind of still am. I actually have them on DVD.”

James: Brooks joined the Army at 18, right out of high school, and ended up at a big base near Tacoma, now called Joint Base Lewis-McChord. When she got out of the Army she applied to work at exactly one police department. It was near the base, and she says it had a reputation for good pay and good training: the Tacoma Police Department. Not only was she the only Black woman in the group of rookies starting when she did. She was the only woman, period.

Brooks: One of my first memories was, you know, the lieutenant who was in charge of the new recruits had called each one in my academy group into his office. And the very first thing the lieutenant said to me was, he's like, ‘You know, you seem like a really nice lady, but I don't think this job is for you.’ And so then he asked me, he was like, ‘What does your husband think about you having this job?’ And at age 21, I knew that this is so wrong. He shouldn't be asking me that. And on his desk there was a picture of his family. And I wanted to ask him, ‘What does your wife think about you having your job?’ But I didn't. There was a female sergeant who was also in the room, and she didn't say a word. I took note of that and I told them, ‘Well, it really doesn't matter what he thinks because we're getting divorced.’ So, you know, so that was my introduction. Welcome to TPD.”  

James: Brooks would go on to work 30 years with the Tacoma Police. Patrick Malone, of The Seattle Times, has spent dozens of hours interviewing her… because she offers a rare view inside the department.

Malone: “Val is a unique character in the sense that once she was absorbed into police culture, she did not become captured by it. She retained the eyes, the lens of an everyday person.

James: Brooks started as a police officer in 1989. Manny Ellis was a toddler. And Tacoma was about to get famous, all over the country.

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “Come along with us to one city, Tacoma, Washington, in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. One city. It could be your city.”

Brooks: “In 1989 when I first started, the gang problem in Tacoma was out of control.” 

James: “48 Hours,” on CBS with Dan Rather, did a whole episode about it.

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “Gang members moving from L.A. to the Pacific Northwest.”

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “Drug war on Main Street.”

“On the ground! I’ll kill you if you don’t get there, on the ground!”

Brooks: “Crime was up. I think there was a sense of ‘Get out there and make a difference.’"

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “Local cops here are responding to the SOS.”

“Oh, by golly. Looks like crack cocaine.”

Brooks: “Because the gang members were Black, I think that it was, ‘Hey fix that problem by any means necessary. “You know, when you think about New York with stop and frisk and things like that, I think that here in Tacoma, we were basically doing the same thing, but no one ever put the label on it.” 

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “The Tacoma Police Department raided over 130 crack houses last year.”

“Is this the sixth time we’ve gotten you in a crack house?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t been counting.”

“Haven’t been counting.”

Brooks: “I remember we would stop large groups of gang members and. And, you know, you would pat them down for weapons. And if they had weapons, then you would arrest. If, you know, if you found drugs, you know, again, because of the way that you kind of searched them, you would probably just, you know, destroy it.” 

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “You know, this looks like any street in America, almost any street in America. And you make it sound like there was a war going on out here.”

“Well, for ten minutes there was.”

James: This reputation of Tacoma as a warzone, it stuck for a while. It still defines the city in some people’s minds today. As the 90s wore on, things calmed down. But Tacoma would end up on “48 hours” again, in another episode that would come to define the city and its police department. In 2001, Tacoma got a new chief.

Brooks: “I know it's going to come as a shock to a lot of people, but prior to incidents involving David Brame, I thought that David Brame was a very good police chief.

James: A lot of people in Tacoma liked David Brame, too. He was a local kid, a baseball and basketball star at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School whose dad had also been a police commander. Tacoma royalty.

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “Brame came from a family of police officers and had campaigned hard for the job.”

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “My brother’s retired from the Tacoma Police Department, my cousin’s retired from the Tacoma Police Department.”

James: At just 42 years old, he was sworn as chief in front of a crowd at the Tacoma Dome.

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “Crystal had proudly pinned the chief’s badge on her two young children, Haley and David, looked on.”

Archival: “This is truly a profound and honorable experience for me. I’m home and this is where I’ll stay.”

Brooks: “One of the things he did differently than some of the other chiefs over the years is that he held his command staff accountable. And it was effective. His personal problems came to light towards the end.”

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “David Brame was unstable, abusive, and police chief of a major city. Powerful people knew his dark past. Did keeping secrets lead to murder? A ‘48 Hours’ mystery, tonight.”

James: Less than two years after becoming chief, Brame shot and killed his wife and himself in front of their two children. Brame’s wife, Crystal, had filed divorce papers before she was killed. She said the chief choked her, threatened to snap her neck, and pointed a gun at her. Other stories came out.

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “Back in 1981, when he first applied for the police force, he took two separate routine psychological exams, and both psychologists recommended he not be hired.”

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “How did this man become chief of police?”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out.”

Archival (“48 Hours” clip): “He had a brother on the police force. He had a father on the police force. It’s the good old boys system, it’s the buddy system, it’s the blue code.”

Brooks: “After David Brame committed suicide, the attorney general at that time did an investigation of the Tacoma Police Department and the finding of that investigation was that the culture at the Tacoma police department was culturally - the words used were it was ‘culturally corrupt.’” It was widely publicized. It was you know, the media did their job. They reported on it. And yet nothing changed.”

James: Investigators spent months looking into the Tacoma Police Department. They said they found no evidence for criminal charges, but — quote — “abundant evidence of troubling management issues.” The state attorney general said Brame ran the department like a dictator, and demanded “undying loyalty” from the people around him.

Pierce Murphy: “Information came to light about a culture that had covered up and protected domestic violence and other problems.”

James: Pierce Murphy was the police ombudsman for the city of Boise, Idaho. City officials in Tacoma asked him and other experts to come up with recommendations on how to fix the Tacoma Police Department.

Murphy: “We actually all met in Tacoma in your City Hall there. We strongly recommended independent oversight for the Tacoma Police Department and some changes in policies.”

Brooks: “They had the opportunity back then to change the course.”

Murphy: “There was no immediate action. My recollection is that pretty much we were told thank you and not much happened at least for a while after that. It was a department who was grieving and shocked by what had happened. The impressions at the time were that it was very insular and it was very close knit. I guess the last impression I had was it just felt like, ‘That was a one-off and we need to move on.’”

Brooks: “That would have been the time to hire an outside police chief to come and clean this up, right? Well, they didn't. Tacoma likes homegrown people.

James: They gave the job to an insider: one of Brame’s assistant chiefs, Don Ramsdell. He had been with the department for almost 20 years at that point.

Archival (TV12 news clip): “The chief started his career in Tacoma 1985 as a police patrol officer and by 1989 became a narcotics investigator dealing with the influx of California-based street gangs infiltrating Tacoma.”

Brooks: “I think they wanted to keep things status quo. And that's what they got.” 

James: It was 2003. Manny Ellis was in high school, 16 years old. Don Ramsdell would go on to be the longest-serving chief in Tacoma’s history. We reached out to Ramsdell for comment on how Brooks viewed his time as chief. He didn’t respond.

Brooks: “I think that was around the time where I started to become more vocal.”

James: By the end of her career, Brooks was one of about 15 Black officers in a department of more than 300. And during Ramsdell’s time as chief, she became an observer, almost an investigator, of her own department. She started filing complaints about things she saw as sloppy, unethical, or racist.

Brooks: “This was a middle school in Tacoma.”

Malone: “A white boy at a middle school in Tacoma circulated a petition with a drawing of a girl with a burqa hanging from a noose and the wording to the effect of, ‘All Muslims must die’ and, ‘Please take back the Holy Land.’” 

Brooks: “He had a picture of what was labeled as the Quran with an “X” going through it. This is more than just, you know, kid stuff. There's an ideology behind this.’ 

Malone: “The boy presented the petition to the class to his classmates, including the girl who was targeted by it.”

Brooks: “The young Muslim girl was not listed as a victim. No one ever interviewed her. You've basically taken away her voice.”

Malone: “Val viewed that as incompetent police work and flagged it as such. Tacoma Police Department decided it was good enough for them.”

James: Brooks filed 18 of these sorts of complaints, some written, some verbal. Only one was ever upheld, and only in part.

Malone: “Well, the value of them to me is it shows what a very high bar there is for the Tacoma Police Department to discipline its own. She brought what I would describe very confidently as ironclad evidence in the majority of her complaints, citing the specific policies and the line and, you know, subcategory of the policy that’s being violated, and they were dismissed. And they were never determined to be unfounded. In each case it was, ‘This does not rise to the level of a policy complaint.” 

James: Pierce Murphy spent years overseeing offices that investigate the police in Boise and then in Seattle. He says, by doing all this, Brooks broke an unspoken rule of being a cop.

Murphy: “Within the agency, they gripe and complain all the time, criticize each other and all that. But it's all done informally and not documented and not in any way that would hurt somebody's career or create a problem for them. And I imagine the difficulty she had was that she wanted it documented.” 

Brooks: “You have to put it in writing so that they can't deny it. And it's a learning curve. You know, you think that you make the assumption that everyone wants to do the right thing. No, that's not the case, people will look for every excuse to not do the right thing.”

James: The complaint that ended up having the biggest impact on Brooks came in 2019.

Brooks: “Every day at the beginning of shift. Normally we have what we call turnout, and that's where the patrol officers go into a large room and we're given, like, a daily briefing before you start your shift. Sergeant Branham was conducting turnout. And when he did turn out, he wanted the attention of the room. My impression was that he loved the attention. And Sergeant Branham pulled up a picture of a Black male that was wanted for a particular crime. And so he puts his picture up on the projector and he said, ‘Well, we don't have a valid address for him, but don't worry, you'll be able to find him. He'll be with one of his hos.’ And I think he waited and he expected people in the room to laugh, and they didn't.”

Malone: “You know, Val perceived this to be a slight against Black women, referring to two women, both Black citizens of Tacoma, who are not accused of any crime.” 

Brooks: “The fact that people didn't laugh, I thought, ‘Wow, in years past, there probably would have been laughter, so maybe this is a sign of progress.’ And boy was I wrong.”

James: Brooks filed a complaint.

Malone: “There were 19 officers questioned that day, and that includes Val. Three of them verified that ‘hos’ was said. Others denied it. Others said they didn't hear it.”

James: Brooks had been critical of the department for a long time at that point. But she says there had been this feeling of trust between her and the other officers. A lot of them had supported Trump in the 2016 election, and she loved having these no-holds-barred political talks with them. She was willing to talk with them about race, and even debate things like the killing of Trayvon Martin when a colleague said it was justified. But the fact that so many officers would flat-out deny what they had heard in that briefing, it changed things for Brooks.

Brooks: “It's like, ‘Wow.’ That's when I really saw to the extent that officers are willing to go to to protect each other. It's like, ‘Wow, if they're willing to lie about this, they would definitely lie when it's a use of force type situation.’ That's when I realized that. I couldn't work with these people anymore.”

James: Elsewhere in Tacoma, Manny Ellis had been having his own run-ins with police, struggling with mental illness, addiction, and homelessness. At the time of that incident Brooks described, Manny was 32, starting the final year of his life.

James: The four officers who restrained Manny Ellis the night he died, they all entered the department under Don Ramsdell, between 2015 and 2018. We reached out to all four of the officers, either by calling them directly or talking to their attorneys, and we even reached out to some of their friends and relatives, and none of them wanted to be interviewed. But, like with Manny, records and fragments on the internet show snippets of their lives. Three of them came to Tacoma the same way Brooks did: through the Army.

Malone: “Three of these officers, Matthew Collins and Christopher ‘Shane’ Burbank and Timothy Rankine all served in the U.S. Army and at various times were stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside of Tacoma. That's really what brought them to town.”

James: Tacoma has one of the largest military bases in the U.S. right down the road, and about one-fifth of the city’s police officers have military experience.

Brooks: “A veteran, I think, has an advantage going into law enforcement. You already have a lot of the discipline and usually you're physically capable of doing the job, and so I believe there's even a preference given to veterans.

James: But, unlike Brooks, these three officers served in wartime. Joint-Base Lewis-McChord played a major role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Malone: “Collins, Burbank and Rankine were all deployed overseas in the wars that followed 9/11.”

Archival (Christopher Burbank): “I spent approximately a little over eight years in the United States Army, active duty.”

James: Burbank joined the Army after high school and went to Iraq multiple times. He got a bunch of commendations there. One praises his “calm proficiency” during intense combat. A Department of Defense newsletter describes one of his battalion’s missions.

Malone: “Throughout the deployment, Tomahawk soldiers performed dismounted patrols from their Stryker vehicles, clearing alQaeda from the province and preventing them from securing any additional strongholds. The effort was one of the bloodiest chapters of the protracted war, and it stretched on for 15 bloody months and saw 600 suspected insurgents and 54 allied soldiers perish.”

James: Rankine also joined the Army after high school.

Archival (Timothy Rankine): “I was in the Army for six years. Started in the First Ranger Battalion and then moved over the regular army. My job there was infantry.”

Malone: “Perhaps the most notable, you know, award that was received by Rankine was the Purple Heart for wounds that he received in action November 9th of 2012. He'd been trained in the military as a sniper, among other things. He also got some special medical training for treating urgent wounds on the combat field.”

James: Rankine was the officer who brought up his wartime experience when he talked about rushing to the scene where Manny was.

Archival (Rankine): “I was thinking the worst, that Officer Burbank and Officer Collins most likely were dead or shot. I related their heavy breathing to listening to friends of mine that I lost overseas, the heavy breathing being the last few breaths before they died.”

Malone: “Collins sort of stands out as a high achiever. You know, he was an airborne ranger, which is a sexy military job compared to some, right? He actually was on a very sort of leadership, almost, track.

Archival (Matthew Collins): I was in the Army for just under eight years.”

Archival (Byron Brockway): “What was your rank there?”

Archival (Collins): “Staff sergeant when I got out.”

James: Records show Collins went into the Army after attending three colleges in Oregon and Arizona. He didn’t graduate from any of them, but he did rack up some student debt. That leadership quality that shows up in his military records, it shows up in his policing records as well.

Malone: “By the time that he got to the police academy here in Washington State, he was the president of his graduating class from the academy and actually got a commendation just as he was starting his job at Tacoma police for this leadership role that he had taken on at the academy. So I think what we see in Colin's is someone who already had some of the traits that we see with TBD, where he was also a trainer on defensive tactics, he was a member of the SWAT team, he was a shooting instructor.”

James: Collins came away with something else from his military career.

Malone: “Collins told detectives that he had 12 to 15 years of training and grappling, wrestling, and he was even the coach of the second Ranger battalion's competitive fighting team battalions engaged in these brutal fights against each other. You know, they were sort of semi-organized and it was really a thrill, it sounds like, in the way that Collins describes it.”

Archival (Brockway): “It's grappling, wrestling tournaments?”

Archival (Collins): “Well, it progressed. So you start the first round was just grappling and then they added strikes to the body and then the final round was a fight, a full-on fight.”

Murphy:  “From the city’s standpoint and the police department’s standpoint, they're hiring people that have already learned how to operate in an environment where they're given orders and expected to follow through on them. They’ve learned how to live with a certain amount of discipline.”

James: During Pierce Murphy’s years as a police watchdog in Boise and Seattle, he watched waves of young veterans return from war and then hit the streets as cops.

Murphy: “Here's the difficulty that I saw, particularly at when the largest numbers of new officers were coming on from the conflicts. First of all, it's no secret that a number of them, if not almost all of them, were coming with significant trauma loads of their own, multiple deployments. That combined with a training and experience in the military by necessity that had the veterans looking at everybody that wasn't in the military as a potential threat that might need to be eliminated, transitioning into civilian law enforcement where it just isn't appropriate, and, frankly, it’s a horrid idea that you would have police officers who would be thinking that every person they might encounter could be a threat and might need to be eliminated.”

James: The fourth officer at the scene was different.

Archival (Masyih Ford in NPS video): “I’m connected to these mountains and it’s just kind of a, it’s a really awesome feeling.”

James: While other officers were in the military, Masyih Ford was in college at Western Washington University, about a three hour drive north of Tacoma. It’s a liberal arts college known for its left-leaning politics. Ford worked as a park ranger in the summers at nearby North Cascades National Park. The National Parks Service even put him in a promotional video.

Archival (Ford in NPS video): “It was a family tradition to go camping at one of the national parks every summer. Those were some of probably the best memories I have with my family.”

James: And, unlike the other officers, Ford was from Tacoma. Manny Ellis’ mom, Marcia Carter-Patterson, used to work in Tacoma schools as a guidance counselor. She remembers meeting a high school student who was in the middle of a silent protest over the treatment of LGBTQ people. He wrote a note to her explaining what he was doing. She came to know this student, Masyih Ford.

Marcia Carter-Patterson: “He was graduating from high school. I asked him, ‘What can I get you before you go to college? What is it that you really need?’ I thought he would say, like, ‘I need a microwave or I need a refrigerator.’ But he said, ‘Miss Carter, I just want ties. I want to look sharp every single day.’ And so my husband and I, we went to a place where we shop and then we bought him 25, I don't know how many ties it was, but it was quite a few, a couple of shirts, you know, that he could change up in and be sharp everyday. And so I said, ‘Okay, Masyih, I'm going to come to your house and bring you everything that you asked me for.’ And when we got there, we took our shoes off because they don't wear shoes in the house. They're Muslims. His parents are, look like to me they were devout. They offered us food, dinner, and they were really gracious people.”

James: In college, Ford gave a presentation about a community farm he was working on. In the video, you can see the top of his tie under a fleece. After college, the magazine High Country News did a profile on Ford about his time working as a park ranger. It describes Ford as Black, gay, and Muslim, a rarity in the overwhelmingly white Park Service. Ford told the magazine he wanted to get enough law enforcement experience to start a career as a parks ranger. Shortly after Ford joined the Tacoma Police Department, he got a text to his new work phone. It was a picture of a gun and Tacoma badge and something else.

Malone: “It depicts the Punisher symbol. It's kind of a skull with an elongated jaw, and it's based on a comic book character who's sort of an anti-hero. And it's meant to symbolize street justice, right? And it's been adopted, sort of appropriated in some ways and embraced to signify justice being meted out on the street by police.” 

James: We don’t know who sent this message or why. What we do know is this symbol — one that’s been co-opted by right-wing extremists — was circulating within the Tacoma Police Department. Back in the 80s, Brooks entered a police department that was dealing with gang violence. But these new officers entered a department dealing with a new crisis: Visible poverty, homelessness, drug use, and mental illness, and the public disturbances and petty crimes that sometimes come with those things.

Brooks: “Anybody can call you about anything. And the policy of the Tacoma Police Department was if someone calls 911, you're just going to go. No matter what. “I received a 911 call from a dispatcher and there’s a Black man in a park sitting on a bench and he has bags sitting near his feet at the ground and he's engaging people in conversation as they walk by. They wanted me to respond to that and there's no behavior in there that would warrant a 911 call. There's no behavior in there that would warrant a police response. And when you start becoming 75 percent social workers, every officer's just kind of winging it.”

Malone: “They're dealing with a lot of problems that aren't always crime and sometimes are society's other troubles. I came across a poll conducted in 2019 by two of the foremost police training companies, and it surveyed 4,200 law enforcement officers nationwide, including many here in Washington state. It highlighted interactions with people in crisis as a top level problem. And I'm going to read directly from that report. ‘Resources are strained. Officers are burned out or demoralized. People in crisis suffer injuries and are even killed by officers who are called to help them,’ the survey said. And as a Tacoma police spokesman told me, police are often the only ones who will reliably show up when someone is in crisis.”

James: We have a glimpse into the training these officers got for the situations they might face. Records for three of the officers — Burbank, Collins, and Ford — show they trained in de-escalation for a combined 29 and a half hours. Decision making under stress: 12 hours. Bias and fair and impartial policing: 19 hours. Mental health: 27 hours. Use of force: 165.5 hours.

Malone: “They all worked patrol on the graveyard shift in South Tacoma. It was a high concentration area for police. They saw a lot of crime there. And they viewed it as, you know, a place that needed more of their attention. So they saturated it in ways that they didn't necessarily do other parts of town.”

James: The records show only one of the officers had experience as a cop before coming to Tacoma. Burbank had worked as an officer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he racked up some complaints.

Malone: “Burbank was the subject of 16 internal investigations during that four year span. Ten of those involved injuries to civilians, one he'd speared twice with his knee in the back to make him get in a police car. Another was a teen he took to the ground at an underage drinking party. Another teen he failed with a leg sweep. Others, he'd used a Taser on one of them five times. Burbank also faced complaints in North Carolina for racial profiling, wrongful arrest, conducting an incomplete investigation and three driving related incidents. In all 16 instances, he was cleared of wrongdoing, except for one of the car crashes where he was deemed to be at fault.”

James: But, in Tacoma, Burbank and his partner, Collins, had a different reputation. Their personnel files don’t show any complaints about their use of force. Instead, they’re full of stories of these two Army vets getting into dangerous situations, and their bosses recognizing them for it. August 2016: They tase and subdue a man with a knife who said, “Kill me, kill me.” April 2017: They arrest a domestic violence suspect who said he would shoot officers. May 2017: They stop a car with people inside who are suspected in a drive-by shooting.

Malone: “Dramatic stuff, right? Collins also was recognized individually by a man who they'd taken in for an involuntary mental health evaluation, who wrote to the department and said that Collins actions on that night saved his life.”

James: There’s another pile of records: Incidents that didn’t earn the officers recognition but also didn’t seem to get them in trouble with their bosses. February 2019: Burbank punches a 27-year-old Black man who’s handcuffed in the backseat of his patrol car. Burbank doesn’t face any discipline. December 2019: Rankine and Ford respond to a house where neighbors have reported yelling. A man in the house puts his hands behind his back and refuses to be handcuffed. He’s described in reports as white, 260 pounds and drunk. Ford forces the man to the ground by his hair, drags him down some stairs by his leg, and aims a Taser at his girlfriend. Rankine uses a chokehold while the man tries to yell, “I can’t breathe.”

[Clip of screaming from video of the scene]

James: The man and his girlfriend say they were yelling before the cops came, but it was just joking around. The man sues the police department and the case is still playing out. March 3, 2020: Burbank and Collins come across a man at the intersection of 96th and Ainsworth. Ford and Rankine are on patrol nearby.

Malone: “In the same way that Manuel Ellis sort of represents the problems and challenges that a whole generation of Black men in America face, I see these four officers as stand-ins for a whole generation of American men who are now in their thirties, you know. Ford as a gay Muslim trying to find his place in police culture, which hasn't exactly welcomed people like him historically. And Rankine, Collins, and Burbank, you know, they were adolescents when 9/11 happened and stoked this new sort of reverence for police and a uniquely contemporary patriotism that inspired many to join the military. And they joined the generation-long war that it spurred and they saw and experienced probably some very unthinkable things. And they came home and law enforcement welcomed them with open arms like it has so many other veterans and then sent them out into the streets of Tacoma armed with warrior mindsets and 40 years of history in Washington state. That said, there are no consequences for your actions on duty.” 

James: In the 40 years before Manny’s death, only three police officers in all of Washington State had faced criminal charges for killing people on the job. After Manny’s death, Ramsdell, the chief, called all four officers “exemplary” in an interview with the local newspaper, the News-Tribune. Then Ramsdell retired. He said it had nothing to do with Ellis’ death. But the timing meant his nearly two decades as chief had tragedies at either end. It started with one police killing that put Tacoma in a national spotlight: David Brame’s murder-suicide. And it ended with another. In a press conference after Manny was killed, Manny’s mom, Marcia, called out one officer by name.

Archival (Carter-Patterson): “Masyih Ford!” We were Facebook friends for 10 years. Why haven’t you come to me and said, ‘Ms. Carter, I’m really sorry?’ Masyih Ford was a student of mine.”

James: She says she wonders how the Ford she knew as a teenager became one of the officers under investigation for her son’s death. After police kill someone, it’s pretty much a journalism ritual for reporters to dig into the officers’ histories. There’s an implicit question behind this digging: Were these some of the bad ones? Looking at these four officers, you can see what you want. They did things that earned them awards for their courage. They used force in ways that drew complaints, but never any official findings they did anything wrong. But there’s another way to look at it: Rather than “good officers” or “bad officers,” these were four pretty typical Tacoma police officers who were part of a culture. A culture heavily infused by the military. A culture that once enabled a former chief’s bad behavior right up to the point he committed murder. A culture that values loyalty and bristles at criticism. A culture where complaints alleging racism didn’t go anywhere. A culture that tells officers: No matter what you do, you’ll be protected. You’ll be embraced by your own.

Just weeks before Manny was killed, Valencia Brooks got a new patrol car. It had a sticker on the back: a black-and-white American flag with a blue stripe through the middle. The “thin blue line.” To some cops, this symbol represents how police hold the line between order and chaos, protecting the good people from the bad, or it’s a memorial to fallen officers. But it can have another meaning as a symbol of the Blue Lives Matter' movement, a backlash to Black Lives Matter — something that could be seen as political, divisive, even racist. One week before Ellis’ killing, Brooks filed a complaint asking to take off the sticker and replace it with an American flag. A day later, a higher-up denied it. More than a year later, though, the department did take off stickers.

Brooks: “They view it, either you 100% support and defend the police, either you're with us or you're against us. For me, that's what the thin blue line has always represented. It's like, either you support us unequivocally or you're on the other side of that thin blue line.” 

James: Brook’s experience in the briefing room, when her fellow officers said they didn’t hear the sergeant saying “hos,” kept replaying in her mind. After a career full of complaints that didn’t see any action, this is the one that she couldn’t let go of. For her, this incident wasn’t about one officer or one mistake. It was about whether she could trust any of the cops around her. She felt like an outsider at the department where she had worked for three decades.

Brooks: “So I went to a different squad to work with other officers. And now it's the unknown. Are they honest? Are they not? I don't know. Going to work was very uncomfortable and I felt very much alone. It got to the point where I started wearing my earbuds as I walked into the turnout room because I was trying to filter out the culture. And finally, I had a problem with my laptop and I had to go up to the elevator or the stairs to IT and it's up on the third floor where the chief’s office is and the people that I try not to have contact with.”

James: She says she walked past members of the top brass.

Brooks: “And I saw that nothing is going to change. Nothing is going to get better. And so it just hit me. It's like I don't belong here anymore. I'm done. I can't do this anymore. It's not worth the sacrifice. “I went to the locker room to go change out, back into my civilian clothes and I couldn't get out of there fast enough. And I ended up just unzipping the jumpsuit and just tying it around my waist so that the patches didn't show while I was driving my own car. I didn't even bother to undress. And I accidentally left my laptop on the bench in the locker room, and I drove myself home. And that was it. I felt like, you know, every day going to work, it's like people are trying to tell you that your reality is not your reality, you know, that it's just your perception that you're the only one that sees things this way.”

James: “I can't stop thinking about one thing you said earlier, and it's that you felt a little bit of apprehension coming here to Tacoma today. You live outside, you live in the suburbs.”

Brooks: “Yes, I live in Spanaway. Since I've retired, I've only been inside the city limits a couple of times and I don't feel comfortable because I know what my former coworkers are willing to do to suppress the truth or to cover for each other.”  And so when you know what they're willing to do and you know that you're probably considered to be on the other side of that blue line, I'm getting to the freeway and, you know, getting out of Tacoma.” 

James: Brooks says she never worked with any of the four officers in the Ellis case. All she knows about the case is what she’s heard and read. But when she’s asked about Manny’s story, what it brings up is all the experiences she had at the Tacoma Police Department and the uncertainty they’ve left her with.

Brooks: “If the city of Tacoma and the police department let officers get away with lying on something insignificant, it translates to you lie even more when it really, really matters, because that's when you could impact, let's say, an officer's future. What chance does the Ellis family have of even just one honest officer coming forward to say, ‘Hey? I can't go along with this anymore, and I need to tell the truth.”

James: When Brooks retired in 2021, the investigation into Manny’s death had been quiet for months. Investigators with the Washington State Patrol took over from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and then handed their findings to the state attorney general’s office. Everyone was waiting. By late May of 2021, the four officers had been on paid leave for almost a year.

Kari Plog is an award-winning reporter covering the South Sound, including Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties. Before transitioning to public radio in 2018, Kari worked as a print journalist at The News Tribune in Tacoma.
Mayowa Aina reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. Mayowa started her public radio career at KUOW in Seattle. She's worked at NPR in Washington, D.C. and Alaska Public Media before moving back to her hometown of Tacoma to work at KNKX.
Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.