The family of Manuel Ellis, who cried, “I can’t breathe!” before he died of oxygen starvation while being restrained by police, filed a federal wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit Friday against the Tacoma Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
The lawsuit brought by Ellis’ sister Mon
Ellis death was invoked in widespread protests last summer as a symbol of wrongful use of force by police and has resulted in a historic set of criminal charges against three Tacoma officers, Matthew Collins, 38, Christopher Burbank, 36, and Timothy Rankine, 32.
The suit also targets other officers who were not criminally charged, but participated in Ellis’ restraint — Tacoma officers Masyih Ford, 29, and Armando Farinas, 27. All the Tacoma officers remain employed and on paid administrative leave, pending an internal investigation.
Collins and Burbank, charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, and Rankine, charged with first-degree manslaughter, have pleaded not guilty and are free on bail. Before the Tacoma officers were charged, just three Washington law officers had faced prosecution for on-duty deaths over the past 40 years.
The suit, filed by Seattle attorney James Bible, also names an officer — Ron Komarovsky, 26 — who has not been previously identified as a subject of Tacoma police’s internal investigation. He is not on administrative leave, said Tacoma police spokesperson Shelbie Boyd. Pierce County Sheriff’s deputies Gary Sanders, 47, and Anthony Messineo, 45, also are named as defendants for failing to intervene. Neither was placed on leave.
Spokespeople for the Tacoma Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment on the lawsuit. The suit does not specify damages.
Ellis was merely walking home with doughnuts and a bottle of water when two officers targeted him because he is Black, the complaint alleges. “He was deemed suspicious by the officers and they beat, tased, choked, and hogtied him as a result of their false perceptions of Manuel Ellis that are irretrievably linked to his race.”
The civil complaint includes a photo of a spit hood like the one used on Ellis that bears the warning, “DO NOT USE on anyone that is … having difficulty breathing.” By the time it was placed on Ellis, he’d gasped to officers that he couldn’t breathe at least four times, according to Washington State Patrol investigative records obtained by The Seattle Times.
At least six eyewitnesses, two of whom filmed the incident with their cellphone cameras, told investigators that the officers launched an unprovoked attack on Ellis, the records show. The witnesses contradicted the statements of Collins and Burbank, who said Ellis was harassing a passing car, prompting them to intervene.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Ellis’ death a homicide and noted a high level of methamphetamine in his system, but did not blame his death on the drug.
The lawsuit alleges that Tacoma police seldom face internal consequences for misconduct, including excessive force, and calls the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s initial investigation into Ellis’ death a “sham.” That probe faced criticism from Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Gov. Jay Inslee, prompting Inslee to assign the state patrol to investigate.
Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer, who was the office’s spokesman at the time, is not named in the lawsuit, but it highlights his public statements early in the investigation that turned out to be false — namely that Ellis was never choked or shocked with a stun gun.
“Mr. Troyer’s false statements were intended to pacify community outrage and help conceal the reality of what had happened,” the complaint said.
When charges were announced against the three Tacoma officers, Troyer mocked the decision on social media.
Ellis’ name took its place alongside George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the signs and lips of protesters in the Pacific Northwest whose sustained demonstrations called for more equitable policing for Black people.
In Pierce County, Ellis’ death helped inspire the adoption of a new tax to boost mental health care, and his name was invoked this year as lawmakers passed sweeping reforms meant to curb deaths at the hands of police.