On May 27, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed felony charges against three Tacoma Police Department officers for the killing of Manuel “Manny” Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man. Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins face second-degree murder, and Timothy Rankine faces first-degree manslaughter.
According to court documents, on March 3, 2020, Ellis spent the evening at his church playing drums and then went home, where he was staying with a friend. Around 11 p.m., Ellis went out to get a snack from a 7-Eleven in South Tacoma.
On Ellis’ walk home, he encountered Collins and Burbank at 11:21 p.m. at an intersection. It is unclear why the officers stopped Ellis as he was passing their patrol car. Several eyewitnesses who were waiting at the red light said Ellis appeared to be talking to Collins and Burbank casually before the officers tackled and repeatedly struck Ellis for no apparent reason.
The officers used neck restraints and a taser on Ellis. Rankine then arrived at the scene and applied pressure on Ellis’ back, despite Ellis repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe.
Rankine “recklessly caused Ellis’s death when, after hearing Ellis say he could not breathe,” he continued to hold Ellis in a prone position and apply pressure on his back, according to court documents. Three eyewitnesses stated Ellis never struck or fought back against the officers.
The three officers appeared separately before a Pierce County Superior Court judge and pleaded not guilty May 28. Bail was set at $100,000. All three were released on bail later that day.
This is the first time a Washington attorney general has criminally charged officers for the unlawful use of deadly force, according to a statement from Ferguson.
In 2018, voters passed I-940 to require independent investigations of deaths at the hands of law enforcement. The passing of this law was to eliminate bias that might arise when investigating police killings; police departments are to conduct independent investigations. For three months, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department failed to disclose that one of its deputies had responded to the call. There were three investigations after the Sheriff’s Department was removed from overseeing Ellis’ initial case. The Washington State Patrol did its own investigation and referred the charging decision to Ferguson.
In a May 27 press conference, James Bible, an attorney for Ellis’ family, said that for the first three months after Ellis’ death, the Sheriff’s Department depicted Ellis as dangerous, delirious and that officers were in a struggle for their life, despite videos and witnesses contradicting that story.
The Tacoma Police Union disagrees with the charges brought against the three men. The union said in a press release, “Facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be a politically motivated witch hunt.”
Read more of the June 2-8, 2021 issue.