TACOMA — On the day they would have celebrated his 34th birthday, relatives of Manuel Ellis announced their intention to sue the Tacoma Police Department for $30 million for his death.
Ellis died in handcuffs on March 3 from lack of oxygen caused by his being restrained, which the Pierce County Medical Examiner determined was a homicide. His final words — “I can’t breathe, sir!” — were captured by a home security camera, vaulting Ellis’ name into the national movement calling for an overhaul of law enforcement because of its unequal treatment of Black Americans.
Seattle lawyer James Bible, who represents Ellis’ family in the legal action, announced on Friday the filing of a tort claim against Tacoma — a precursor to a lawsuit — outside Tacoma City Hall with Ellis’ mother and other family members.
“The Tacoma Police Department did everything it could to hide information. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department did everything they could to back the Tacoma Police Department,” Bible said. “They created a false narrative in relation to what happened to Manny Ellis on that night.”
In a rare move, Ellis’ death investigation was transferred to the Washington State Patrol in June after the Pierce County sheriff, who had been handling the case, belatedly acknowledged one of its deputies may have participated in the fatal encounter. The Attorney General’s office will consider criminal charges when that probe is done.
At the news conference Friday, Bible released video interviews with eyewitnesses — including one witness who previously had not been publicly identified — that he said contradict officers’ version of what happened to Ellis, in which he was portrayed as an aggressor. The eyewitness accounts describe officers provoking the struggle.
The claim filed Friday does not name the four Tacoma police officers present when Ellis was killed. But Bible said he also intends to add officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, Masyiah Ford and Timothy Rankine individually to the suit.
Attorneys representing the officers did not respond to an interview request, but previously urged the public to withhold judgement until the facts are known. The Tacoma Police Department said Friday it does not comment on pending lawsuits.
Bible also took aim at the culture of the Tacoma Police Department, including a text message on a department-issued phones which welcomed Ford on the day of his hire with a photo of his badge, gun and “The Punisher” symbol, a skull appropriated from a comic-book anti-hero that signifies street justice.
Ellis’ death has sparked protests in Tacoma and Seattle after the medical examiner ruled it a homicide, although that finding was not made public for nearly a month.
Before Ellis died, a spit guard was placed over his face at the scene, which may have contributed to his death, the medical examiner noted. Ellis had high levels of methamphetamine in his blood as well, but the absence of heart damage precluded it as the cause of death, the medical examiner’s report showed.
Ellis’ mother, Marcia Carter-Patterson, said if Manuel Ellis were still alive, his family would’ve had a barbecue and celebrated on Thursday. “We believe in family. My son was someone that was cared for and loved,” she said.
“That’s not right”
How Ellis’ encounter with police began is in dispute. At the time, he was in a period of stability, living in a clean and sober home in south Tacoma after struggling for years with addiction and mental illness.
On the night of March 3, officers reported seeing Ellis trying to get into occupied cars stopped at a red light in south Tacoma. Police say Ellis charged an officer who approached him, initiating the fatal encounter.
But a witness who recorded cellphone video of part of the incident told The Seattle Times that officers initiated the conflict by pulling up alongside Ellis in a police cruiser, flinging open its door and knocking him to the ground, then beating him.
Another witness described something similar: “The cop opened his door and he slammed it into Manny,” said Samuel Cowden, a pizza delivery driver who was driving past the scene, in an video interview released by Bible.
Cowden said he was stunned and began recording what he saw as “police brutality” on his phone. He said he observed officers kneeling on Ellis’ neck. “No matter what side you’re on, that’s not right. That’s a human rights violation.”
The officers were placed on administrative leave the morning after Ellis’ death, but returned to work less than two weeks later, on March 16. They were back on administrative leave June 3 after the medical examiner’s homicide ruling became public.
The next morning, they received a group text message from fellow Tacoma Officer Brett Beall, who’d fatally shot a teenager in 2011 and shot another man in 2015 who survived. Both shootings were deemed justified by prosecutors.
“You guys are studs and did nothing wrong,” said Beall’s text message, obtained by The Times under a public-disclosure request. He assured the officers they had the support of their peers and invited them for a beer. Beall and the Tacoma International Union of Police Associations Local 6 did not respond to interview requests.
When The Seattle Times and other news outlets requested the officers’ personnel files, Tacoma police released heavily redacted copies that showed commendations for the officers, but no use-of-force complaints against them.
Burbank, Collins and Rankine were subjects of citizen complaints in 2019 alleging inadequate investigation of incidents. Internal investigations cleared them, according to personnel files obtained under an open-records request.
The Tacoma Police Department, through a spokesperson, Detective Wendy Haddow, declined to answer direct questions about the officers’ past use of force.
A Seattle Times review of police reports involving the officers before and since Ellis’ death revealed they used force on subjects on several occasions.
On Feb. 8, 2019, Burbank punched a 27-year-old Black man in the face while he was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car. Burbank said in a police report he struck the man to prevent another officer from being head-butted. “This strike to his face had the desired effect,” Burbank wrote in his report.
There is no indication in documents released by Tacoma police that the incident prompted a complaint.
Just after midnight on Dec. 14, 2019, Ford and Rankine responded to reports of a loud domestic argument between a man and a woman. They announced themselves at the doorway and drew their guns.
The 26 year-old man, who was described in reports as 260 pounds and drunk, wouldn’t put his hands behind his back to be handcuffed, struggling with the officers.
Ford grabbed him by his ponytail, and then a leg, dragging him down a flight of stairs while pointing his Taser at the woman, who was screaming at the officers. Ford later wrote that his actions were necessary because the suspect didn’t voluntarily place his hands in a position to be cuffed.
When Rankine and Ford returned from their original administrative leave associated with Ellis’ death, they were immediately paired to patrol the same neighborhood on the south side of Tacoma where Ellis had died.
The investigation into Ellis’ death was an initial test of Washington’s new police-accountability law passed by voters in 2018. After the Pierce County Sheriff mishandled the investigation, Attorney General Bob Ferguson ordered a review of at least 30 other use-of-force investigations to ensure they hewed to new conflict-of-interest and transparency standards.
On Thursday, the Washington State Patrol said it was following the new standards in the ongoing Ellis investigation, including establishing a liaison with his family and appointing three community representatives to monitor the investigation.
Bible expressed frustration at the slow pace of the State Patrol investigation and said investigators have not accepted his offer to connect them with eyewitnesses who challenge the police accounts of what happened on the night Ellis died.
State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftus said there is no timetable set for the investigation’s completion.
“The fact-finding process that must occur is occurring and to best serve Mr. Ellis’ memory and all those impacted,” he said. “Washington State Patrol cannot and will not compromise the investigation by substituting haste for accuracy.”