May 27, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Three Tacoma officers charged in death of Manuel Ellis

People hold signs during a vigil for Manuel Ellis, a black man whose March death while in Tacoma Police custody

People hold signs during a vigil for Manuel Ellis in Tacoma, Washington. Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

The Washington state attorney general on Thursday charged two Tacoma police officers with murder and one with manslaughter in the death of Manuel Ellis, a Black man who died after repeatedly telling law enforcement he couldn't breathe while being restrained last year.

Why it matters: It's the first time the state's attorney general's office has filed criminal charges against officers for the unlawful use of deadly force.

  • Thursday's announcement also comes just weeks after a jury found former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the murder of George Floyd — a rare conviction of a police officer.

Context: Ellis, a 33-year-old father of two, had been heading home when he encountered Tacoma officers Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank on the night of March 3, 2020, according to a probable cause statement filed in Pierce County Superior Court.

  • The three men appeared to have a "respectful conversation, with no signs of aggression," the statement added, citing eye-witnesses.
  • As Ellis began to walk away, Burbank "abruptly swung open the passenger door of the car, striking Ellis from behind and knocking him to his knees."
  • According to video and eyewitnesses, the officers repeatedly hit and tackled Ellis to the ground, per the probable cause statement. They also tased, hogtied and restrained Ellis, with Collins placing his knee on the Black man's neck. Officer Timothy Rankine arrived at the scene after the two officers called for backup.
  • Ellis can be heard pleading with the officers, saying, "Can't breathe, sir. Can't breathe," in a home security video.
  • “Ellis was not fighting back,” the probable cause statement said. “All three civilian witnesses at the intersection ... state that they never saw Ellis strike at the officers.”
  • The Pierce county medical examiner last year ruled Ellis' death a homicide.

The big picture: Burbank and Collins have been charged with second-degree murder, and Rankin has been charged with first-degree manslaughter, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement.

  • The maximum sentence for both offenses is life in prison.
  • Gov. Jay Inslee (D) ordered a new investigation into Ellis' death after the Pierce County Sheriff's Office, which initially handled the probe, failed to disclose that one of its deputies was involved in Ellis' detention.

The Tacoma Police Union said in a statement it was "disappointed the facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be politically motivated witch hunt."

  • “An unbiased jury will not allow these fine public servants to be sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment," the union added.

Worth noting: Earlier this month, Inslee signed a dozen bills aimed at curbing police misconduct and boosting accountability, including banning chokeholds and neck restraints.

Go deeper: Derek Chauvin's guilty verdict in the murder of George Floyd is the rare officer conviction

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