by Luna Reyna
On March 3, 2020, Manuel Ellis was pronounced dead while in police custody. After the Pierce County Medical Examiner determined Ellis’ death was a homicide, three Tacoma police officers who had been involved in detaining Ellis, Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine, were charged with Ellis’ murder. Jury selection is scheduled to begin on Monday, Sept. 18.
‘I Can’t Breathe, Sir!’
On March 3, 2020, Ellis bought a box of raspberry donuts and water at a south Tacoma 7-Eleven and started his walk home a little after 11 p.m. Tacoma police officers Burbank and Collins claimed that as Ellis walked past their vehicle, he started banging on it, and when they exited their vehicle, Ellis then attacked them. The officers’ initial claim was that in their efforts to detain him after his aggressive behavior, he fought back, which resulted in the force they used and his eventual death.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office repeated the officers’ version of events for weeks until eyewitness testimony and video evidence uncovered by Ellis’ sister, Monét Carter-Mixon, told a different story. Eyewitnesses shared that Ellis walked past the police vehicle peacefully and Burbank aggressively swung his door open as Ellis was passing by and knocked him down. Burbank began tasing Ellis multiple times while Collins put him in a “lateral vascular neck restraint” from behind, a chokehold that constitutes deadly force. Across the street, a home surveillance system caught footage of the interaction, with Ellis pleading and repeatedly telling officers, “I can’t breathe.”
To which an officer responded, “Shut the fuck up.”
The doorbell camera footage also captured video of when Tacoma officer Rankine arrived at 11:24 p.m. Rankine immediately forced his weight onto Ellis’ back with “all [his] weight to the middle of [Ellis’] body, securing [his] right knee over the top of his spine just below the base of his neck” with his “left knee in the middle of his spine, on his lower back,” according to the probable cause statement.
Ellis continued to tell officers he couldn’t breath. To which Rankine responded, “If you’re talking to me, you can breathe just fine.”
A few minutes later, a spit mask was placed over Ellis’ face because he was spitting blood after being punched, choked, and tased, according to charging documents. He was then hog-tied and Rankine’s weight remained on his back. When emergency responders arrived at the scene seven minutes later, Ellis was unconscious and barely breathing. Attempts to revive him through CPR were unsuccessful, and Ellis was pronounced dead at 12:12 a.m., about an hour after he left the 7-Eleven.
In early June 2020, Ellis’ death was ruled a homicide by the Pierce County Medical Examiner. According to the report, Ellis died from lack of oxygen due to physical restraint.
In late June 2020, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office disclosed that one of its deputies had helped restrain Ellis, so the Washington State Patrol took over the investigation, and then referred its investigation to the Washington Attorney General’s Office.
In May 2021, the State Attorney General’s Office charged Collins and Burbank with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. Rankine was charged with first-degree manslaughter.
Despite the charges, all three officers are still employed by the Tacoma Police Department. They have been on paid administrative leave since 2020, earning upward of $1 million since then. They have also been out on bail since 2020.
During the pretrial hearing on Sept. 1, the attorneys for officers Collins and Burbank argued that their cases should be dismissed because they walked away from Ellis and that the responding officers who were in contact with Ellis at the time of his death were at fault. Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff dismissed the defense attorney’s motion.
Inaction Is an Action
Jamika Scott, a founding member of Tacoma Action Collective (TAC), a collective of organizers and activists in Tacoma “working to eliminate systemic oppression and structural violence while empowering the people to build,” says the lack of action and refusal to fire the officers charged with the murder of Manuel Ellis sends a message to his family and the community that they do not care about Ellis’ life.
“When we call for things like police accountability, the folks who don’t want that always try to turn it into, ‘Well, they just hate the cops,’” Scott said. “No, I don’t have a problem with a cop who comes in and does his job and doesn’t kill anybody to do it. I got a lot of problems with cops who abuse their power, and I have a lot of problems with a system that refuses to take a look at itself and reassess and do better.”
After her brother’s murder, Monét Carter-Mixon reached out to activists and organizers all over the country trying to raise awareness and rally anyone who would support her efforts. Tacoma Action Collective played a critical role in helping her keep the public engaged and aware of what was happening and activating the public to take action and call for charges to be filed against the officers who detained Ellis.
“The family of Manuel Ellis has waited 450 days,” said the May 2021 TAC statement in response to the charges being filed. “Before they had an answer, before they could allow themselves to grieve, they had to wait 450 days. In no circumstance is this acceptable. We will not celebrate that the Washington State Attorney General’s office decided to do the ‘right thing.’ We will not celebrate the fact that there might be consequences for police officers who murdered a Black person who was simply walking home. We will not celebrate taking 450 days to tell us if Manuel Ellis’ life mattered.”
According to Pierce County Courts, there are 30 extra seats available in the courtroom each day that will be assigned through a lottery system at noon each day. One seat per email address will be assigned to the public. Scott hopes community members will show up for Ellis and his family and sign up for public in-person viewing of the trial. She says the courtroom can be intimidating, especially when filled with officers and their families.
The case will be livestreamed, according to the Pierce County website. Scott will also be organizing long days outside the courthouse to maintain the community’s focus on the case.
“Without the community paying attention and without people putting on a lot of pressure, the powers that be aren’t just going to initiate change on their own,” Scott said. “It’s about the community really staying on it as best we can and putting pressure where pressure is needed and making sure that it’s clear that we’re watching and we want accountability and we have a very specific standard of what that looks like.”
What Does Justice Look Like?
Nothing will bring Ellis back to his loved ones, but TAC and Ellis’ family have set out to make sure that what happened to him never happens to anyone else. Their calls for accountability have resulted in new procedures for spit masks that played a role in suffocating Ellis, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s report.
For TAC and Ellis’ family, charging these officers is just the beginning. TAC demands include that State Attorney General Bob Ferguson direct the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Tacoma Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department; the immediate firing of all officers involved in the arrest of Manuel Ellis; that all personnel files of the officers engaged on the scene be made public; and the removal of City Manager Elizabeth Pauli for failing to hold the Tacoma Police Department accountable. None of these demands has been met.
“We don’t want those officers to be able to go back out in uniform, especially because there’s no protocol for making sure that what happened [to Ellis] doesn’t happen again,” Scott said.
An internal investigation was supposed to be set into motion after the officers were charged with felonies but has been postponed until after the criminal trial proceedings.
Luna Reyna is a South Seattle writer and broadcaster whose work has identified, supported, and promoted the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. She was Crosscut’s Indigenous Affairs Reporter and her work has appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, Prism Reports, and Talk Poverty. Luna is proud of her Little Shell Chippewa and Mexican heritage and is passionate about reporting that sheds light on colonial white supremacist systems of power.