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Update: Officer Timothy Rankine's History

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An instance from Officer Timothy Rankine's past brings new context to the events of the night Manny Ellis was killed.

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 byKNKX Public Radio andThe Seattle Times, with support fromNPR. It's sponsored, theGreater Tacoma Community Foundation and Group Health Foundation.

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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.

[Click from police radio]

Will James: On the night of March 3rd, 2020, Tacoma Police Officer Timothy Rankine heard mysterious Mike Clicks coming over the radio in his patrol vehicle.

[Chatter from police radio]

Will James: Rankine told investigators this made him worried that two of his fellow officers, Christopher “Shane” Burbank and Matthew Collins, were in danger. As we've reported, Rankine is a military veteran and he said his experiences in combat were on his mind as he rushed to the scene.

Timothy Rankine, from interview with Pierce County Investigators: “I was thinking the worst, that Officer Burbank and Officer Collins was like, we were either 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.”

Will James: We've told you about Rankine before, but it turns out we didn't know all the background. This is The Walk Home. I'm Will. James. One of the questions we've had this entire time is what sorts of experiences and training did police officers bring with them when they encountered Manny Ellis? It's a question we explored back in Episode 5. This update is to let you know about some new reporting by a member of our team. Seattle Times investigative reporter Patrick Malone asked for public records from the Washington State Police Academy for any communications with Tacoma police about Rankine's fitness to be an officer. Patrick ended up with a bunch of documents, and one of them describes an incident from Rankine's past we didn't know about before: an incident that adds new context to the events of the night Manny Ellis was killed and raises questions about police training and hiring practices.

Will James: “Hey, Patrick.”

Patrick Malone: “Hi, Will.”

Will James: “What was your reaction when you opened up the file and saw what was inside it?”

Patrick Malone: “Oh, I was like, ‘Oh, boy.’ Because it imparted some very clear red flags about Rankine to the Tacoma Police Department based on his behavior at the academy.”

Will James: This memo Patrick got was written by a trainer at the police academy back in 2018. It describes a training exercise set up like a video game. In this exercise, Rankine and his training partner are in a room with big video screens. On these screens are virtual characters controlled by an instructor. In one simulated scenario, the trainees are supposed to deal with a character verbally threatening people in a park. They're told this character is known to police — that he had a knife on him the week before. But, so far, he's shown no weapon in this virtual park. This exercise, it's supposed to be about when and how to physically take control of a suspect.

Patrick Malone: “Rankine begins to talk with them, trying to get some information and trying to see if he can judge what sort of threat the situation is. Even at this very first step, Rankine was already struggling. The memo shows that he had a very hard time finding the right words for it. The next step, if he had been successful, would have been to recognize that verbal commands were not working and that he was going to have to put hands on this man. But he simply pulled out a gun and shot him. There were 30 recruits in that training and Rankine was the lone one to shoot the virtual suspect. Rankine's instructor called the shooting completely unjustifiable. And so this was very shocking, obviously, to the instructor. And he found it noteworthy enough to share with the Tacoma Police Department before they could bring Rankine on board.”

Will James: “The instructor describes Rankine in a state he calls ‘mental condition black.’ What is your understanding of what that means?”

Patrick Malone: “Well, it was a term that I had to become familiar with. It's basically a high stress reaction. It causes you to really have distorted reality. ‘Auditory exclusion’ was one term that was used by the instructor to describe how Rankine did not hear the commands and guidance that was being provided to him by dispatchers, by his partner, by his instructor. He saw things that were not in reality there, things like a bulge in the suspect's pocket. No such thing existed. The trainer said he saw the suspect reach for that ostensible weapon. His instructor said that didn't exist in reality either. And these were the excuses that Rankine gave for shooting the simulated suspect.”

Will James: “Afterward, the instructor tried to talk to Rankine about this, right?”

Patrick Malone: “Right. And this is pretty important because, you know, in speaking with experts after the fact, they recognize recruits are going to fail tests from time to time. But a big question is: How do they respond to correction? How do they come to understand what they would do differently in real life? And, after the fact, when Rankine had shot the virtual suspect and performed poorly in the eyes of his instructors, his instructor tried to explain what he had done wrong. The instructor went on to say that was a lost cause because Rankine had slipped back into what he called ‘mental condition black’ and had tuned out this criticism and really was not interested in learning what he had done wrong or what he should do differently if there was a real human in front of him.”

Will James: “This is during a training exercise in the police academy. Where does Rankine's career go from here?”

Patrick Malone: “Well, within two months of that exercise, Rankine was on duty with the Tacoma Police Department. They followed through with hiring him, despite this memo. And a spokesperson for the police academy described the exercise where Rankine exhibited this bizarre behavior as more of a non-graded task than a test. So, you know, in the eyes of the academy, this was not the type of behavior that would pose a barrier to him going to work anywhere in the state of Washington. But the two experts that I spoke with — Pierce Murphy, who had been the head of police oversight in Boise, Idaho, and in Seattle for nearly 20 years combined and Dr. John Vigilante, a Ph.D. research professor at the university at Buffalo who specializes in police well-being and has done some deeply researched academic studies — both said that the academy and the Tacoma Police Department viewed Rankine's poor performance on this test far too narrowly. Both experts said it hinted at an underlying response to past trauma that raised very legitimate questions about Rankine's fitness to perform the job of a police officer.”

Will James: “What do we know about Rankine's life experiences and his, you know, just sort of where he comes from as a person?”

Patrick Malone: “Sure. I mean, we pieced this together because Rankine's legal team has not participated in our coverage of this case, not returned phone calls, not wanted to do interviews. And that's often a strategy that defense lawyers choose. But public records and court appearances have shed some light on who he is.”

Patty Eakes, from recording of arraignment: “Thank you, your honor. Here on State of Washington versus Timothy Eugene Rankine. And we'll here for an arrangement. Mr. Rankine is present on video from the jail as well as his counsel, Mr. Bryan Hershman.”

Bryan Hershman, from recording of arraignment: “I defy this bench or the state to find anybody who will say anything about this gentleman other than the fact that he’s not just human, he’s superhuman.”

Patrick Malone: “For instance, he was just 13 when he told his parents that because of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he aspired to join the military.”

Will James: “We have some tape of Rankine's prior attorney at his arraignment in 2021 talking about some of these things.”

Bryan Hershman: “He told his parents he wanted to enlist in the United States Army to defend this nation at 13 years of age.”

Patrick Malone: “And then in high school, he lost a thumb in a weightlifting accident.”

Bryan Hershman: “A dumbbell was in the process of falling on a football coach. He put his hand in the way to avoid serious injury to the coach, cut his thumb off.”

Patrick Malone: “And he needed sort of a special dispensation to join the Army because of that disability. He was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, where he saw soldiers he knew well killed right before his eyes and where Rankine himself suffered combat injuries that earned him the Purple Heart.”

Bryan Hershman: “It was his family who had to tell me that his military vehicle was blown up by an IED. He compressed his spine.”

Patrick Malone: “He reportedly gave that medal away to the family of a dead comrade.”

Bryan Hershman: “A fallen veteran, a comrade in arms that he lost in a battle overseas defending this country.”

Will James: “So there's this other document you found in these files. And it's like a worksheet where Rankine is asked to assess his own performance at the academy. He writes down things that he feels he's good at. He writes down things he feels he's bad at. What do we learn about Rankine from his own assessments of how he's doing at the academy?”

Patrick Malone: “Well, we definitely learn some more about his personal challenges from this document. He has a history of brain injury and struggles with short term memory loss. That was new information, to me anyway. And throughout this sort of self appraisal, he lingers on the fact that he's seen atrocities and expects his police work to be full of them. I'm going to quote from his own writing here. ‘I'm not the easiest guy to get along with because I come off as being too honest and real. I feel like some of my classmates don't like that because they don't want to think of violence or bad people.’ So the bad guy trope is a really persistent theme throughout Rankine's personal reflection. Here's another quote from it. ‘There's no need to be out of shape and give the bad guy more of a advantage.’ That was another reference to sort of this parallel between combat and police work. All this paints a picture of someone who's really experienced some traumatic events and expects the police work will provide more of the same. So he feels more prepared for these perceived realities than everyone around him. This is ironic because it's these same traumatic combat experiences in the military that have caused two experts we interviewed to question Rankine's fitness to be a police officer. And he sort of clings to them as the primary strength he brings to the job.”

Will James: Rankine graduated from the academy and the Tacoma Police Department hired him. That brings us back to the night of March 3rd, 2020. Fifteen months after shooting that virtual suspect in the training exercise, Rankine was in his patrol vehicle rushing to the corner of 96th and Ainsworth and, according to what he told investigators, thinking about the friends he lost overseas, worried that his fellow police officers were already dead or dying.

Patrick Malone: “So when Rankine arrived, Ellis was handcuffed and prone and in short order was then hogtied and had a spit hood placed over his head. And even after all that, Rankine sat on top of him with all his weight. Rankine was sitting on Ellis's back when he heard him say more than once, ‘I can't breathe.’”

Timothy Rankine, from interview with Pierce County investigators: “It was the first time I actually heard this subject even speak, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I can't breathe, I can't breathe.’ But he said it in a very — not in a distressed voice, in almost a very calm, normal voice. I remember telling the individual, like, ‘If you're talking to me, you can breathe just fine.’”

Patrick Malone: “Rankine didn't believe him, and he even argued with medics initially when they ordered him to get off of Ellis so they could treat him. Within minutes of that exchange, Ellis was dead. And Rankine is now charged with first degree manslaughter.”

Will James: “Why does this matter? Why does this training incident matter in the context of the story we've been telling?”

Patrick Malone: “In a vacuum, which is how the police academy and the Tacoma Police Department sort of viewed this incident, it was noteworthy but not a barrier to employment as a police officer. But viewing it more holistically, the way Rankine told investigators his military trauma informed his actions on the night that Ellis died, the training incident was highly relevant in the eyes of these experts that I spoke with demonstrated that Rankine could fall under the influence of a filter that divorces what he's seeing and hearing from reality. That's what they told me. And this can lead to overreaction, such as treating a civilian in a city you're supposed to protect like an enemy combatant. The experts I spoke with have seen a lot of this. There are a fair amount of people who come back with such traumatic lived experiences that they need more than just a pat on the back before you send them out to be a police officer. Expert that I spoke with from the university at Buffalo said that really mental health hygiene is an area where more police departments are becoming enlightened about the level of screening that they should get, especially to officers who have either been in military combat or transferring after long police careers, because these are things that just inherently are going to expose you to some really nasty stuff, stuff that can really color your mental outlook on the world, can color your perceptions on reality like they believe happened with Rankine here. But, in addition to that, it's becoming increasingly clear, this expert told me, that the best practices are also to keep up this mental health hygiene routinely for police officers, because from one year to the next they accumulate more traumatic experiences just based on the nature of the job. And so making sure that police officers are mentally well and that they have clear headed judgment when they encounter someone, whether it's either a threat or in distress, you know, is something that police departments can do a better job of. And some are.”

Will James: “You know, just listening to you talk about this, it makes me think about how this case we've been reporting on: Manny Ellis's killing by Tacoma police. It really is about arguably much more than the split second decisions by a few police officers over the course of several minutes on one night. It gets at the culture of policing, hiring practices by police, the experiences police bring to the job, who we enlist to patrol our communities.”

Patrick Malone: “It also makes me wonder, too, what is the relationship between the organizations that train police and the organizations that hire police? Are we checking boxes as we pass these people through the academy, or are we taking every opportunity to look for what might be a red flag that could, at the bare minimum, be either corrected and, if not correctable, that could be a barrier to ever giving someone a badge, a gun?”

Will James: “Getting back to the main thing you found, this account of a training incident where Rankine shoots a character on his screen, when you brought that to light, what happened? Did you get any response to that finding?”

Patrick Malone: “There was a pretty surprising and potent response from the Washington State Criminal Justice [Training] Commission at its most recent quarterly meeting in December 2022. The commission directed its staff to draft new language emphasizing its authority to remove recruits from the academy when they exhibit signs of psychological impairment that would interfere with their succeeding as police officers. There was a lot of concern from commission members who believed Rankine would be a quintessential candidate just for that kind of removal. So the commission that certifies police officers in Washington state is on track to more aggressively remove recruits who show these worrisome traits than they were before we told the Rankine story.”

Will James: “Thanks a lot, Patrick.”

Patrick Malone: “Thank you, Will.”

Will James: Rankine's attorneys did not comment on this training incident. Rankine has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and his co-defendants, Burbank and Collins, have pleaded not guilty to murder and manslaughter. Their trial is scheduled to start in September of 2023. As we wait for that, we'll keep reporting and updating you here, so stay subscribed. The Walk Home is a collaboration between KNKX Public Radio and the Seattle Times. Thank you for listening.

Season 1
Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as <i><a label="Outsiders" class="rte2-style-brightspot-core-link-LinkRichTextElement" href="" target="_blank" link-data="{&quot;;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;00000176-e737-dee2-a3f6-ef3729e20000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;ae3387cc-b875-31b7-b82d-63fd8d758c20&quot;},&quot;cms.content.publishDate&quot;:1683152854752,&quot;cms.content.publishUser&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;0000017f-9465-dbd2-a5ff-df6751150000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc&quot;},&quot;cms.content.updateDate&quot;:1683152854752,&quot;cms.content.updateUser&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;0000017f-9465-dbd2-a5ff-df6751150000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc&quot;},&quot;;:[],&quot;anchorable.showAnchor&quot;:false,&quot;link&quot;:{&quot;attributes&quot;:[],&quot;;:[],&quot;linkText&quot;:&quot;Outsiders&quot;,&quot;target&quot;:&quot;NEW&quot;,&quot;attachSourceUrl&quot;:false,&quot;url&quot;:&quot;;,&quot;_id&quot;:&quot;00000187-e3ba-de7b-a1e7-efbb56950000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;ff658216-e70f-39d0-b660-bdfe57a5599a&quot;},&quot;_id&quot;:&quot;00000187-e3ba-de7b-a1e7-efbb56940000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;809caec9-30e2-3666-8b71-b32ddbffc288&quot;}">Outsiders</a></i> and <i><a label=" The Walk Home" class="rte2-style-brightspot-core-link-LinkRichTextElement" href="" target="_blank" link-data="{&quot;;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;00000176-e737-dee2-a3f6-ef3729e20000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;ae3387cc-b875-31b7-b82d-63fd8d758c20&quot;},&quot;cms.content.publishDate&quot;:1683152873618,&quot;cms.content.publishUser&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;0000017f-9465-dbd2-a5ff-df6751150000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc&quot;},&quot;cms.content.updateDate&quot;:1683152873618,&quot;cms.content.updateUser&quot;:{&quot;_ref&quot;:&quot;0000017f-9465-dbd2-a5ff-df6751150000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;6aa69ae1-35be-30dc-87e9-410da9e1cdcc&quot;},&quot;;:[],&quot;anchorable.showAnchor&quot;:false,&quot;link&quot;:{&quot;attributes&quot;:[],&quot;;:[],&quot;linkText&quot;:&quot; The Walk Home&quot;,&quot;target&quot;:&quot;NEW&quot;,&quot;attachSourceUrl&quot;:false,&quot;url&quot;:&quot;;,&quot;_id&quot;:&quot;00000187-e3ba-d948-a1c7-efba9c810001&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;ff658216-e70f-39d0-b660-bdfe57a5599a&quot;},&quot;_id&quot;:&quot;00000187-e3ba-d948-a1c7-efba9c810000&quot;,&quot;_type&quot;:&quot;809caec9-30e2-3666-8b71-b32ddbffc288&quot;}">The Walk Home</a></i>.
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.
Mayowa Aina covers cost-of-living and affordability issues in Western Washington. She focuses on how people do (or don't) make ends meet, impacts on residents' earning potential and proposed solutions for supporting people living at the margins of our community. Get in touch with her by emailing
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