The Washington Attorney General’s Office has never criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force.
SEATTLE (CN) — Three Tacoma, Washington, police officers have been charged in the death of Manuel Ellis, who died while being restrained by the officers, Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Thursday.
Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died after police sat on him, restricted his breathing, stunned him with a Taser, hogtied him and placed a spit hood over his face. Video shows Ellis repeatedly telling the officers, “I can’t breathe.”
Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins face second-degree murder charges and officer Timothy Rankin was charged with first-degree manslaughter, according to probable cause documents filed in Pierce County Superior Court.
Ellis was walking home the night of March 3, 2020, when officers say they observed him attempting to enter vehicles and then punching the passenger side window of their patrol car.
Three civilian witnesses dispute the officers’ accounts, “none of whom ever saw Ellis in the intersection, or saw Ellis strike the officers’ car, or saw Ellis attack, punch, or otherwise strike the officers at any point. These civilian accounts are supported by video sources,” according to the charging documents.
The witnesses said they saw Ellis walk by the police car, exchange words with the driver and walk away when Burbank opened his door, striking Ellis in the legs and causing him to fall to the pavement.
Prosecutors say multiple video and audio sources captured the officers then assaulting Ellis.
In one video, Burbank can be seen “wrapping his arms around Ellis, lifting him into the air, and driving him down into the pavement, striking at him with one of his fists as he does so,” according to court documents.
Video also shows Collins using a lateral vascular neck restraint, a hold that can render a person unconscious and is banned by many police departments, the documents say.
All civilian witness statements say Ellis was not fighting back, according to prosecutors.
A doorbell security camera across the street from the encounter captures Ellis saying several times “Can’t breathe sir. Can’t breathe!” the charging documents say.
At least 20 officers responded to the scene. One officer not involved in the arrest told investigators Ellis began to “snore.”
The officer said it sounded like a person’s last breaths, explaining that when “someone is dying and they have the agonal breathing, their last breaths…. That’s what I heard,” the charging documents say.
Law enforcement witnesses say after Ellis was hogtied on his stomach, while Rankine was still sitting on him, another responding officer placed a spit hood on Ellis.
A spit hood is a fabric hood meant to prevent a person from transmitting fluids by spitting or coughing. It carries specific instructions it is not to be used on anyone who is having difficulty breathing.
When an ambulance crew arrived, they found Ellis unresponsive, still hogtied and with the hood over his head. They could not revive him and declared him dead at the scene.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’s death a homicide due to lack of oxygen from physical restraint, concluding the spit hood prevented Ellis from breathing properly. Methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease were listed as contributing factors.
Ellis’ death has been compared to George Floyd, who died in similar circumstances after being restrained by police. Floyd’s death sparked moths of national protests and calls for police reform.
Governor Jay Inslee appointed the Washington State Patrol to investigate Ellis’s death after the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department violated a new state law requiring independent investigations into police-caused deaths.
The investigation led to charges filed by the attorney general.
“In June, I called for a new investigation and for the attorney general to make a charging decision in the case, as it was clear to me that those needed to be made independent from Pierce County law enforcement,” Inslee said in a statement. “This is the first step in our system of justice.”
Arrest warrants have been issued for all three officers. If convicted, Burbank and Collins face life in prison and Rankine faces 6 1/2 to 8 1/2 years.