Three Tacoma officers have been charged in the death of a Black man who died as a restraint was performed on him in March 2020, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced on May 27.
Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins with were charged with second-degree murder and Timothy Rankine, with first-degree manslaughter in Pierce County Superior Court in the death of 33-year-old Manuel Ellis, who died during an encounter with police as he was walking home from a church revival late on the night of March 3. His last words, “I can’t breathe,” came months before the death of George Floyd.
The maximum for both charges is life in prison, but the standard sentencing range for second-degree murder is 10 to 18 years while the standard range first-degree manslaughter with no prior criminal history is 6.5 to 8.5 years.
This is the first time Washington Attorney General’s Office has criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force. The charging decision comes after Washington State Patrol turned over the case to the Attorney General’s Office for review in November.
Two other officers involved in the restraint, Masyih Ford and Armando Farinas, have not been charged.
All three officers turned themselves in on Thursday and pleaded not guilty to the charges before they were each released on bond on Friday afternoon.
Ellis’ fatal encounter with police began at around 11:11 p.m. as he was on his way home from a stop at a convenience store to buy water and donuts after the church service.
Burbank and Collins said they saw Ellis grabbing on the handle of a slow-moving vehicle. The officers asked him why he was in the street, and Ellis approached the patrol vehicle and punched the window as many as three times, Burbank and Collins claimed.
However, witnesses in the vehicle behind the officers disputed the claim that Ellis punched the window, saying they remember a “peaceful, apparently respectful conversation, with no signs of aggression from Ellis,” prosecutors wrote.
When Ellis tried to walk away, Burbank exited the patrol vehicle and struck him, knocking him to the ground as Collins got out from the driver’s side. According to Burbank, when he saw Ellis take on a “fighting stance,” he hit Ellis with the door to divert his attention.
Witnesses say Burbank got on top of Ellis as Collins ran around the vehicle toward the two.
The officers would later claim that Ellis used “superhuman strength” to lift Collins, who weighs 230 pounds with his gear, by his vest and threw him to the ground.
At this time, witnesses began to film the encounter, although officers were unaware. That video shows that it was Burbank who lifted Ellis into the air, then drove him into the ground, according to charging papers.
Collins attempted to use a neck restraint on Ellis, while Burbank deployed his Taser, then called for backup amid the struggle to handcuff Ellis. Footage shows Collins punched Ellis in the head four times.
Ford, Rankine, and other officers arrived on the scene and Ellis was tased again before being placed on his stomach. Rankine situated his weight in the center of Ellis’ back after the man said he couldn’t breathe.
The struggle, during which Ellis was placed in a spit mask and hogtied, lasted about four minutes. Witnesses said Ellis did not appear to strike back, and charging papers say that footage of the incident “does not show Ellis attempting to strike the officers at any point.” He was held in a neck restrain by Collins, even while lying on the ground with his hands raised at one point.
“Can’t breathe, sir, can’t breathe,” he said. Rankine replied, “If you’re talking to me, you can breathe just fine.” Ellis was left hogtied and face-down for an additional six to nine minutes.
By the the time firefighters arrived to administer aid, Ellis was pronounced dead.
The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Ellis’ death a homicide. He died of oxygen deprivation in which the spit mask was “a significant factor, and possibly the most important factor.”
Farinas, who was not charged, placed the spit mask on Ellis. The mask comes with instructions that it shouldn’t be used on someone who is having trouble breathing.
Methamphetamine and heart disease were listed as contributing factors.
Burbank, Collins, Ford and Rankine were placed on administrative leave after Ellis’ death was ruled a homicide in June, and Farinas was placed on leave in January after it was discovered that he placed the spit mask on Ellis. Lt. Gary Sanders, who held Ellis’ leg during the restraint, was never placed on leave.
An internal review to determine whether any of the five officers involved violated departmental policies will begin right away, interim Police Chief Mike Ake said.
Following the charging decision, Ellis’ family expressed need for greater reform.
“Yes, these three officers are getting charged. Hopefully we see them in jail,” said Monet Carter-Mixon, Manny Ellis’ sister. “It’s hard for me to be happy, hard for me to be celebrate because so many things are still being overlooked,” she said.