Three Tacoma Police Officers Charged in the Killing of Manuel Ellis

by Will James, Kari Plog, and Lilly Ana Fowler

(This article was previously published by KNKX and has been reprinted with permission.)

Three Tacoma police officers have been charged with felonies in the March, 2020, killing of Manuel Ellis, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Thursday — after multiple investigations into a case that has set off protests and resulted in changes in statewide police accountability laws.

Ferguson charged Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins with second-degree murder and Officer Timothy Rankine with first-degree manslaughter.

Three other law enforcement officers who helped restrain Ellis on the night he died — Tacoma Police Officers Masyih Ford and Armando Farinas and Pierce County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sgt. Gary Sanders — were not charged.

The Charging of Officers in Washington

It’s a rare instance of officers facing criminal charges for killing someone in the line of duty in Washington State. Prior to voters passing Initiative 940 in 2018, prosecutors had to prove an officer had “malice.” Under that standard, only one officer since the 1980s was prosecuted for using deadly force. Everett Police Officer Troy Meade faced murder and manslaughter charges, but a jury acquitted him in 2010. 

After I-940 removed that standard, Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson was charged last year with second-degree murder and first-degree assault for fatally shooting 26-year-old Jesse Sarey.

Manuel Ellis: His Life and Death

The Washington State Patrol concluded its investigation into Ellis’ death last year but did not say whether any of the officers involved in restraining him should be criminally charged. 

The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office, however, ruled Ellis’ death a homicide, caused primarily by a lack of oxygen due to physical restraint. Methamphetamine and heart disease were contributing factors, the medical examiner said. In this context, “homicide” means the medical examiner determined the death was caused by another person, not necessarily that it was criminal.

The killing of Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, did not attract widespread media attention for months after his death, despite Ellis’ family and their supporters raising questions about the official narrative. Only after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, 2020, did the case receive more scrutiny. Ellis’ name was chanted alongside Floyd’s at protests for racial justice last summer in the Puget Sound region.

Ellis, who had two children and was known as Manny to his family, struggled for much of his adult life with methamphetamine addiction, schizoaffective disorder, depression, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to his sister, Monét Carter-Mixon. 

Ellis was residing in a sober-living home, getting treatment for his mental illness, and attending church regularly at the time of his death, according to his sister and his landlord. He encountered the officers while walking home from a convenience store.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department was the first agency to investigate Ellis’ death. The department claimed Ellis became aggressive with officers who approached him on a South Tacoma street on the night of March 3, 2020. 

Two white Tacoma Police officers said they approached Ellis after seeing him try to open the door of an occupied vehicle that wasn’t his. More officers and a Pierce County Sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene soon after and assisted the officers in restraining Ellis.

But, during its investigation, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department did not interview key eyewitnesses whose accounts contradicted what police said transpired the night Ellis died. 

Eyewitness video footage showed a Tacoma Police officer wrapping his arm around Ellis’ neck and then pressing a knee into Ellis’ body. Another video captured Ellis saying “I can’t breathe, sir,” while being restrained by officers. 

Throughout its investigation, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department did not reveal that one of its deputies was at the scene and had helped restrain Ellis. Gov. Jay Inslee and other public officials called the officer’s involvement a conflict of interest in the investigation. Inslee intervened, handing the investigation to the Washington State Patrol and naming the State’s Attorney General’s office as the charging authority. 

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards has said the city plans to conduct its own investigation into Ellis’ death. 

Four Tacoma officers have been on paid administrative leave pending the result of the investigation: Matthew Collins and Christopher Burbank, who are white; Masyih Ford, who is Black; and Timothy Rankine, who is Asian American. Their tenure with the department ranges from a year to five years. 

Two others who helped restrain Ellis, Tacoma Police Officer Armando Farinas and Pierce County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Gary Sanders, were never placed on leave. 

Inslee signed legislation earlier this year that created Washington State’s first office tasked with independently investigating police killings. Lawmakers cited Ellis’ case, specifically the thrown-out investigation by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, as an impetus for the legislation.

The team for the Attorney General’s review of Ellis’ death was made up of prosecutors, a representative of his office’s Civil Rights Division, and two retired judges.

The outcome of a $30 million lawsuit filed by Ellis’ family against the City of Tacoma for his death is still pending.

📸 Featured Image: Protesters at a silent march in Tacoma on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, demanding justice for Manny Ellis, who was shot by police in March 2020. On Thursday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the state would file charges against three officers involved in the shooting. Photo by Ronnie Estoque.

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