SEATTLE — Five weeks after ex-Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, three Washington state officers have been charged in the death of Manuel Ellis: another Black man who pleaded for breath under an officer’s knee.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson charged officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins, who are both white, with second-degree murder Thursday after witnesses reported that they attacked Ellis without provocation.
Timothy Rankine, who is Asian, faces a charge of first-degree manslaughter. He is accused of kneeling on Ellis’ back and shoulder as he died from a lack of oxygen, according to a probable cause statement filed in Pierce County Superior Court.
All three were in custody by Thursday evening and were scheduled to be arraigned Friday. Their attorneys did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Ellis, 33, died on March 3, 2020 — Tasered, handcuffed and hogtied, with his face covered by a spit hood — just weeks before George Floyd’s death triggered a nationwide reckoning on race and policing.
The Pierce County medical examiner called Ellis’ death a homicide due to a lack of oxygen caused by restraint, with an enlarged heart and methamphetamine intoxication as contributing factors.
The death made Ellis’ name synonymous with pleas for justice at protests in the Pacific Northwest. His final words — “I can’t breathe, sir!” — were captured by a home security camera, as was the retort from one of the officers: “Shut the (expletive) up, man.”
“Ellis was not fighting back,” the probable cause statement said, citing video recorded by three witnesses.
The case marks the first time the attorney general’s office has charged police officers with unlawful use of deadly force.
Five Tacoma officers have been on paid home leave pending the charging decision, and Ferguson said the investigation is continuing.
The Tacoma Police Union called the decision “a politically motivated witch hunt.”
“An unbiased jury will not allow these fine public servants to be sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment,” the union said in a statement.
Burbank and Collins reported the encounter began after they saw Ellis trying to get into occupied cars at a red light. Ellis, recently back from church, had walked to a convenience store to get a late-night snack: powdered, raspberry-filled donuts.
The officers cast Ellis as the aggressor, saying he punched the window of their cruiser and attacked them as they got out, according to statements from other officers cited in the charging documents.
But two witnesses came forward with identical stories, saying the police attacked. An officer in the passenger side of a patrol car slammed his door into Ellis, knocking him down, and started beating him, they said.
The witnesses “described seeing a casual interaction between the officers and Ellis before Burbank struck Ellis with his car door — there was no sudden, random attack by Ellis as the officers described that night to others,” the probable cause statement said.
Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer, who was then a detective and the spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said after Ellis’ death that none of the officers placed a knee on his neck or head. But witness video that later surfaced appeared to depict just that; the charging documents said Rankine knelt on the base of Ellis’ neck.
The sheriff’s office botched the initial investigation by failing to disclose for three months that one of its deputies had been involved in restraining Ellis; state law requires independent investigations. The Washington State Patrol took over, and the Attorney General’s Office reviewed its evidence and conducted its own additional investigation.
In a statement, interim Tacoma Police Chief Mike Ake said the department would review the case for any discipline, training or policy changes that might be warranted.
“We realize we must reduce outcomes that cause pain and diminish trust within our community,” he said.
Ellis had a history of mental illness and addiction. In September 2019, he was found naked after trying to rob a fast food restaurant. A sheriff’s deputy subdued him with a Taser after he refused to remain down on the ground and charged toward law enforcement.
His landlords at the sober housing where he was staying told The Seattle Times he had been doing well in recent months after embracing mental health care for his schizophrenia. He had been frequently attending church, where he was a drummer in a worship band.
At a news conference Thursday, Ellis’ family welcomed the charges but called for more work to overhaul the criminal justice system. The family is seeking $30 million in a lawsuit against the city.
“The criminal system needs to be made over, from the head — just take it all off,” said Ellis’ mother, Marcia Carter-Patterson. She added: “This is about Manuel Elijah Ellis. This is his work. So help us with it.”
Ellis’ death, Pierce County’s botched investigation, and the national outcry for racial justice inspired Gov. Jay Inslee to convene a task force to suggest ways to guarantee independent reviews of police use of deadly force.
Last week, Inslee signed one of the nation’s most ambitious packages of police accountability legislation, including outright bans on police use of chokeholds, neck restraints and no-knock warrants. The legislation also makes it easier to decertify police — and creates an independent office to review deadly force cases.
The charged officers could face up to life in prison if convicted, but the standard sentencing range is 10 to 18 years for second-degree murder with no prior criminal history, and 6.5 to 8.5 years for manslaughter.
All three previously served in the Army, the attorney general’s office said, and as police officers all had taken training on crisis intervention. Collins, 38, and Burbank, 35, had each been an officer for four years by March 2020 after serving eight years in the Army. Rankine, 32, joined the department in 2018 after six years in the Army and two as a security contractor for the U.S. State Department.
Police reform activists have long bemoaned the prevalence of former soldiers in civilian departments, saying they tend to be more aggressive than called for.