Washington state’s attorney general on Thursday filed felony charges against three police officers in connection with the death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who died in March 2020 in the custody of the Tacoma Police Department.
Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins are charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter while Officer Timothy Rankine is charged with first-degree manslaughter, according to court records.
It is the first time Washington’s attorney general has criminally charged officers for the unlawful use of deadly force, according to a statement from Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
And it’s the second time homicide charges have been filed in the state against law enforcement officers since Washingtonians adopted Initiative 940 in November 2018 – a measure making it easier to prosecute police officers for negligent shootings.
The three officers pleaded not guilty during their first court appearances on Friday. Burbank, Collins and Rankine appeared via video conference from the Pierce County Jail for their arraignment on charges related to Ellis’ death as officers were trying to arrest him in March 2020.
Bail for all three men was set at $100,000 after prosecutors asked for $1 million bail, which defense attorneys argued against.
The next court appearance for Burbank and Collins will be on June 11. Rankine’s next appearance is on June 24.
The officers were booked into the Pierce County Detention and Corrections Center on Thursday, a news release from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said.
The Tacoma Police Union, in a statement, called the prosecution “a politically motivated witch hunt” and the officers “fine public servants … sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment.”
“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,” the union said.
Ellis died when police in Tacoma attempted to arrest him on March 3, 2020, for allegedly “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles.” Ellis had to be restrained after a physical altercation with officers, according to police.
Part of the arrest was caught on video by a driver. And Ellis could be heard crying, “I can’t breathe,” on police dispatch audio.
City Council calls tragedy ‘a turning point’
In a statement, Gov. Jay Inslee said of the charges: “This decision is within the authority of the attorney general’s office and I look forward to a full briefing on their findings. This is the first step in our system of justice.”
“We must remain proactive – from those of us in elected office to those providing services in our communities – to turn the tide of injustice,” Inslee said. “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.’”
Tacoma’s City Council said in a joint statement that 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.”
“Our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of Manuel Ellis,” the statement said. “They have had to endure the heartbreaking loss of their son, brother, father and friend.”
Council members touted a series of police reforms implemented in the last year, including the use of body cameras.
“This tragedy is not only a turning point for police reform in Tacoma, but across our state and nation,” the City Council statement said. “We, as a community, are resolute to enact changes in policing. No one should fear law enforcement or die in police custody.”
Ellis’ death led to protests in Tacoma. It also became another flashpoint in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring and widespread demonstrations in response to police brutality, particularly toward African Americans.
Court documents released on Thursday said Ellis died during Burbank and Collins’s “felonious assault and/or unlawful imprisonment of Ellis.”
Burbank and Collins “tackled and struck Ellis multiple times, applied an LVNR (Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint) on Ellis, and shot him with a taser three times, all without justification,” according to the documents.
The two officers also “failed to render or call for urgent medical aid,” put Ellis in “hogtie restraints,” failed to alert other officers to the medical distress, and “failed to intervene when the officer put the spit hood on Ellis and then failed to remove the spit hood,” according to the documents.
Spit hoods are items that some corrections officers, police officers and paramedics could place on a detainee’s head in certain circumstances to make it harder for that person to spit at, or bite, those officers or others.
Rankine “recklessly caused Ellis’s death when, after hearing Ellis say he could not breathe” the officer continued to hold Ellis in the prone position and applied pressure to his back, court documents said.
Governor last year launched new investigation
Officers eventually called for medical assistance that day, but Ellis died at the scene.
The cause of death was respiratory arrest due to hypoxia caused by physical restraint, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office. Hypoxia is a condition in which the body is deprived of oxygen.
Last June, Inslee launched a new investigation into the death.
Inslee said at the time he ordered Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste to collect records from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, which had been conducting the investigation before the sheriff learned one of his deputies participated in the attempt to restrain Ellis – creating what the governor’s office called “an incurable conflict.”
In the audio recording, captured by the website Broadcastify, officers could be heard asking for hobbles – a kind of leg restraint – at around 11:26 p.m.
About 50 seconds later, as an officer relayed a message to the dispatcher. A male voice can be heard in the background exclaiming, “I can’t breathe.”
A few minutes later an officer can be heard requesting an ambulance.
Four police officers were placed on administrative leave.
After the death, two videos posted on social media showed Tacoma officers striking a Black man and pinning him down before he died in their custody. James Bible, attorney for the Ellis family, said at the time the man was Ellis.
Both videos of the alleged altercation are under a minute. They were posted on Twitter. One appeared to show officers striking Ellis as he laid on the ground. A second video appeared to show them holding Ellis to the ground and telling him to put his hands behind his back.
The videos were posted on the page of a local activist group, Tacoma Action Collective. It was unclear whether the video recordings were taken before or after Ellis was heard shouting “I can’t breathe” in the dispatcher audio.
After the video surfaced, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards demanded the four police officers be fired and prosecuted.
Two of the four officers in his case are White, one is Black and one is Asian, according to police.
The Tacoma Police Union at the time accused the mayor of passing judgment on the four officers “without any facts, without an investigation, without due process, and with less than a minute of short, blurry, partial Twitter videos in hand.”