Justice may be coming for Manny Ellis, the Black man who died in Tacoma Police custody 15 months ago. But the criminal charges against Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine were far too long in coming.
George Floyd was alive when Ellis died. The police officer who killed Floyd a year ago last Tuesday has been fired, tried and convicted.
Yet, during that time, multiple Washington agencies fumbled with investigating how police killed Ellis, who was 33. That investigation languished despite months of protests for racial justice inspired by Floyd’s murder and the painful video that put Americans on the street watching it. Those images galvanized many leaders and others in America to action and reform.
Full accountability for the killing of Manny Ellis is still desperately needed.
The City of Tacoma is still paying officers involved with Ellis’ death. While the Legislature enacted significant police reforms, lawmakers balked at boldly unwinding the byzantine layers of protection from firings and discipline that police win through collective bargaining.
Police unions in our region so far have proven to be unwilling partners in reform, displaying intransigence and belligerence. Thursday, a Tacoma Police Union Local 6 press release called the charges a “politically motivated witch hunt” and blasted the treatment of the “fine public servants” caught on video harming Ellis in front of witnesses.
A year ago, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards demanded four officers be fired over Ellis’ death. In a televised statement Thursday, she lamented the city’s impotence in police discipline that keeps them on the payroll. That is not unique to Tacoma. May 5, an Atlanta civil service review forced police to reinstate a fired officer awaiting trial for shooting a fleeing man in a Wendy’s parking lot.
“We already saw in Atlanta how an officer fired and charged with murder was reinstated,” Woodards said. “I do not want that to happen here.”
The Legislature has failed cities across Washington by enabling such situations. This spring, Senate Bill 5134 could have enacted reforms allowing cities to discipline police for bad behavior now shielded by contracts that supersede even the law.
That bill never got out of committee. Labor groups, including the Washington Federation of State Employees and Teamsters Local 117, locked arms with police unions to fight it.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office under Sheriff Ed Troyer also must answer for its actions that impeded the Ellis investigation. That agency inappropriately was investigating the case for three months even though a sheriff’s detective sergeant and lieutenant were present when Ellis died, the charges filed Thursday show.
In 2018, voters approved Initiative 940, which set a statewide requirement for independent investigations of police killings. Pierce County voters approved I-940 with a healthy 55.6% majority and should demand accountability for this brazen disregard.
Months ago, Troyer downplayed the violence of Ellis’ death in a press release dismissive of comparisons to Floyd. The difference between what he told the world about Ellis and the details now known are vast. Now the elected sheriff, Troyer’s credibility already is made suspect by his shifting stories about his own confrontation with a Black newspaper carrier Jan. 27.
Gov. Jay Inslee rightly ordered the State Patrol to take over the case. Attorney General Bob Ferguson received the Patrol’s findings in November but actually expanded the investigation with new evidence and witnesses.
Ferguson offered only a press release to explain Thursday’s charges. Three other officers who helped subdue Ellis have not been charged, without explanation. The press release said the “investigation remains ongoing.”
So does the need for a thorough reckoning.