It has been eight months since Manuel Ellis died at the hands of police in Tacoma, Washington. Now Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has announced his office is deciding whether criminal charges will be filed against the officers who were involved in Ellis’ death.
“Yesterday, the Washington State Patrol informed us that its Independent Investigation Team completed its investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis and referred the case to my office for a charging decision. To assist in this important decision, I appointed an internal review team in my office that includes prosecutors, a representative of my Civil Rights Division, and two retired judges,” Ferguson said in a statement. “My office is in the process of reaching out directly to the Ellis family to schedule a meeting. The law imposes no deadline or timeline for this review. We will keep the public informed through appropriate updates.”
Ellis — a 33-year-old Black man who was a church musician and father of two — died March 3 after being stopped while walking home from a convenience store, restrained by police, and tased and struck multiple times by the officers while he was on the ground.
Initially, the Tacoma Police Department said Ellis started the confrontation by slamming a police officer to the ground and denied choking or tasing him.
However, eyewitnesses who recorded videos of the encounter gave a different account of what happened. They were Sara McDowell and Samuel Cowden.
“The driver cop ran around the front of the car and grabs Manny and literally like flips him over, like body slams him,” McDowell told KIRO7. “He knocks him onto the ground and his head hit back and it looked like he hit the curb. He just started punching him in the face. … He punched him about ten times.”
She added there was even more to the encounter than she captured on video. “They were tasing him too. You could just hear all the commotion,” McDowell said.
In the video which corroborates some of her story, McDowell could be heard yelling, “Hey! Stop! Oh my God! Stop hitting him, just arrest him. Oh my god, that looks so scary!”
Ellis also uttered what have become eerily familiar words echoed by Black men who died while in police custody before and after him: “I can’t breathe.”
Dr. Thomas Clark, the Pierce County Medical Examiner, ruled Ellis’ cause of death a homicide caused by “hypoxia due to physical restraint.”
While Ellis did have pre-existing heart disease and methamphetamines in his system, Clark’s report said biggest factor was him being deprived of oxygen “as a result of physical restraint, positioning, and the placement of a mask over the mouth.”
After the video evidence, Clark’s report and concerns over conflict of interest, Gov. Jay Inslee assigned the Washington State Patrol to investigate Ellis’ death.
The officers involved in Ellis death are Christopher Burbank, 34, Matthew Collins, 37, Masyih Ford, 28 and Timothy Rankine, 31. Two of them are white, one is Asian American and one is Black. All are currently on paid leave.
Ellis’ family said he was a good man despite his struggles with drug addiction and mental health. Their attorney James Bible has condemned the Tacoma Police Department for what he called “an absolute attempt to mislead the public.”
“This would be a blatant miscarriage of justice if the officers involved in killing Manuel Ellis were not charged with murder,” Bible said.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards — who’d called for the officers’ firing — said there was no need to wait on Ferguson’s decision to know there is a larger problem to be addressed.
“We do not need the outcomes of the Attorney General’s review to know that the systems built up around policing have disparate outcomes not just in Tacoma but across the nation,” Woodards said.