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Tacoma Police Chief clears ex-officers in 2020 death of Manny Ellis

Defendants Christopher Burbank, Timothy Rankine and Matthew Collins, get up and head out of court after the prosecution and defense have both rested their cases in their trial being held in Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma Wednesday, December 6, 2023.
Ellen M. Banner
Pool Photo - The Seattle Times
Defendants Christopher Burbank, Timothy Rankine and Matthew Collins, get up and head out of court after the prosecution and defense have both rested their cases in their trial being held in Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma Wednesday, December 6, 2023.

The final three Tacoma police officers under internal investigation in the March 2020 death of Manny Ellis agreed to resign after more than three-and-a-half years on paid leave and the department largely clearing them of wrongdoing under policies at the time. Police Chief Avery Moore announced the decision in an email on Tuesday.

“The Use of Force policy in place in March of 2020 failed to serve the best interests of the police department or the community. However, because it was policy at the time, it guided my decisions announced today,” Moore said in an email statement. “That policy has since been superseded by a new policy.”

At the time of Ellis’ death, the department lacked guidelines on when to use spit masks and how to hogtie detainees, which medical experts cited as contributing to his eventual suffocation.

Former officers Matthew Collins, 40; Christopher “Shane” Burbank, 38; and Timothy Rankine, 35, remain under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department after being acquitted of state murder and manslaughter charges last month in the death of Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, on March 3, 2020. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington announced on Friday that it was reviewing the criminal investigation conducted by the Washington Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the three officers.

The state Criminal Justice Training Commission has not moved to decertify the officers, but it could do so upon finding they committed misconduct or failed to meet professional standards. The officers’ certifications would have been automatically revoked if they were fired or resigned in lieu of termination.

Collins no longer lives in the state and Burbank's attorneys have said he is unlikely to work in law enforcement again. Rankine's attorneys respond to questions about his future in law enforcement.

Last Thursday, the officers agreed to resign and the city agreed to pay each of them $500,000, according to city records. A city of Tacoma spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about the payment and whether it was approved by the City Council.

“These agreements support a responsible, constructive path forward for our community and the Tacoma Police Department,” City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said in an email statement. “With faith in our city’s enduring resilience and strength, I acknowledge that healing throughout Tacoma will require time, open dialogue, and shared respect.”

Moore was initially scheduled to announce any discipline for the officers last Thursday but postponed until this week, citing a required pre-disciplinary meeting with the officers scheduled for last Friday. Each of the officers declined to meet with Moore, records show.

The Tacoma Action Collective, which was co-founded by newly-elected Tacoma City Council Member Jamika Scott, wrote on social media that the city didn't listen to the community.

"The system that we're supposed to trust in Tacoma is so broken that you can beat, tase, hog-tie, and deprive a Black man of oxygen until he dies and only be reprimanded for not being more respectful about killing him," the group wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Ellis' family against the city of Tacoma and the officers is also pending. The family previously reached a $4 million settlement with Pierce County, which investigated Ellis' death until disclosing that one of its sheriff's deputies had helped hogtie Ellis.

Collins and Burbank, who are both white, called Ellis over to their patrol car while stopped at a red light and said Ellis suddenly attacked them, according to trial testimony. Three eyewitnesses testified at trial that the officers who punched, choked and Tasered Ellis, were the aggressors.

Moore cited Collins for violating department policy on courteous interactions with the public. Collins told Ellis to “shut the (expletive) up, man,” after Ellis repeatedly said, “ Can’t breathe, sir,” according to doorbell camera footage played during his trial. Moore issued a written reprimand for cursing at Ellis last Thursday, according to city records.

Rankine, who is Asian American, arrived as backup and pressed on Ellis’ back for several minutes while he was hogtied face down despite him saying he couldn’t breathe.

In an email statement, Rankine's attorney, Anne Bremner, said the officers were victims of political motivations and accused state prosecutors of downplaying Ellis' health issues at trial.

"If we genuinely seek 'Justice for Manny,' our society must confront the real issues underlying his death—drug addiction and mental health—rather than unfairly placing blame on officers who were not responsible for the tragic outcome," Bremner wrote in the email. "Until that moment comes, we anticipate our police force will continue to lose good officers, like Officer Rankine, and our crime rates will continue to climb to new highs."

The department’s internal investigations of Collins, Burbank and Rankine had been on hold pending the outcome of their trial. Meantime, the officers earned close to $1.5 million collectively in salary from the city of Tacoma while on administrative leave since June 2020, when the Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide due to oxygen deprivation from restraint by police.

At trial, the three officers’ attorneys argued that Ellis died of a methamphetamine overdose worsened by a heart condition.

Former Interim Police Chief Mike Ake previously “exonerated” two other officers, Armando Farinas and Masyih Ford, in December 2021 after internal investigations. Ford was Rankine's partner and also helped restrain Ellis. Farinas arrived minutes later and placed a spit hood over Ellis' head, which medical experts testified may have impaired his breathing.

During a news conference after the U.S. Justice Department announcement, the Ellis family, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and the Alaska Oregon Washington State Area Conference of the NAACP demanded that federal officials seek a consent decree, or court-ordered settlement for reform, with the Tacoma Police Department.

"Before me and my family, is Jackie's [Salyers] family. There's Benny Branch’s family, there’s Said Joquin’s family. Time and time again, these police departments have shown us that they'll collude together, they'll cover up evidence they won't investigate," said Ellis' sister Monét Carter-Mixon, who also criticized the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. "They will not do their jobs."

At the news conference, the family’s attorney, James Bible, said he was concerned that Collins, Burbank and Rankine would find work at another department if the city chose not to fire them.

"The very least thing that you could do is actually remove them from their jobs by firing them, not pushing them off to some other county or city or another place where they can live in anonymity with the money that you've given them for the past three years," Bible said.

"Not allowing them the opportunity to simply resign, which has somehow sometimes happened with departments around the country that have been in similar circumstances. And if the city of Tacoma fails to fire these officers, it only serves as notice that they truly do not think Black Lives Matter. And that goes for all of them."

Updated: January 16, 2024 at 3:17 PM PST
Added links to city payment records
Updated: January 16, 2024 at 2:54 PM PST
Added background about Collins reprimand
Updated: January 16, 2024 at 2:47 PM PST
Added attorney Anne Bremner confirmation of $500K payments
Jared Brown was a Poynter Media and Journalism Fellow based at KNKX covering the intersections of policing, courts and power with a focus on accountability and solutions.