TACOMA — After a year of protests forced a reckoning on police accountability, three Tacoma police officers will face felony charges for the killing of Manuel Ellis, matching in one day the number of officers prosecuted in Washington for deadly use of force over the past 40 years.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who took over the case after a botched local investigation, announced Thursday that Matthew Collins, 38, and Christopher “Shane” Burbank, 35, will face second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter charges, and officer Timothy “Timmy” Rankine, 32, is charged with first-degree manslaughter.
The charges in Pierce County Superior Court portray the officers as instigating an unnecessary, violent confrontation on a South Tacoma street with Ellis, a 33 year-old Black man, on March 3, 2020, and callously ignoring Ellis’ dying plea of “Can’t breathe, sir!”
Thursday’s announcement marks the first time in recent state history the state attorney general — and not a local prosecutor — prosecuted an officer in Washington. Before Thursday, just three officers were prosecuted for on-the-job deaths statewide in four decades, including an Auburn officer charged last year.
The announcement comes 450 days after Ellis’ death, a period defined by mass protests that demanded accountability for use of violent police force against Black people.
Burbank, Collins and Rankine were booked Thursday into the Pierce County jail, according to the Washington State Patrol. They are being held without bond pending a Friday hearing. If convicted, they could face life in prison.
Ferguson declined to charge three other officers — Tacoma officer Masyih Ford and Armando “Manny” Farinas, and Pierce County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Gary Sanders — who helped subdue Ellis.
That disappointed the Ellis family, said Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, but she believes the case against those who were charged is strong. “It would be extremely hard not to convict based off of the evidence: witness statements, video and [the officers’] own statements.”
The Tacoma police union, International Union of Police Associations Local 6, issued a statement calling the charges “a politically motivated witch hunt” and said “an unbiased jury will not allow these fine public servants to be sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment.”
Portland attorneys Michael Starapoli, who is representing Collins, and Steve Myers, the lawyer for Burbank and Rankine, did not respond to interview requests.
All three officers have military backgrounds. Collins and Burbank, who both joined Tacoma police in 2015, each spent eight years in the Army, including deployments to Afghanistan. Rankine, hired by Tacoma in 2018, is also a U.S. Army veteran.
Ferguson did not answer questions about the case Thursday, citing attorney ethics rules that limit public statements about pending prosecutions.
Despite the charges, the defendants remain Tacoma officers. A Tacoma police statement said the department’s disciplinary process is just beginning.
“We realize we must reduce outcomes that cause pain and diminish trust within our community,” the statement said. “We are committed to upholding accountability of individual officers who violate their oath to protect and serve.”
Ellis’ family has consistently challenged the course and quality of the investigation into his death. At a news conference in Tacoma, Ellis’ mother, Marcia Carter, said she believed her son was “used as a sacrifice” to “expose the corruption that is in our City Council, this whole state.”
“My heart is heavy,” Carter said, urging people to “quit being scared to play politics.”
“Manuel Elijah Ellis was chosen, so now let’s continue to walk in the path that was set before us.”
“Can’t breathe, sir!”
Last March, Ellis, a lifelong Tacoma resident, was staying at a sober-living home in south Tacoma called God’s Hand Up, and in a court-ordered mental health diversion program. According to his landlords, he thrived on the structure.
The night of March 3, 2020, he was returning home from a 7-Eleven with a late-night snack of raspberry-filled donuts. According to charging documents, Ellis had a cheerful interaction with the store clerk, who described Ellis as “a nice kid… really respectful.”
Collins and Burbank later told investigators they saw him in the middle of an intersection, hassling a passing car. According to charging documents, a brief confrontation became violent, with Burbank knocking Ellis to the ground with his car door.
Collins used a “lateral vascular neck restraint” from behind, a chokehold tactic courts have ruled constitutes deadly force, while Burbank repeatedly used a Taser on him — uses of force “without justification,” according to charging documents. Contrary to the officers’ statements to investigators, six witnesses said Ellis did not fight back, according to the charges.
“He wasn’t even defending himself,” one witness said.
According an audio recording from a nearby Ring camera, Ellis began pleading, “Can’t breathe, sir. Can’t breathe!” The audio caught an officer’s response: “Shut the (expletive) up, man.”
Tacoma police weren’t required at the time to wear body cameras, but the incident was filmed by Samuel Cowden, a pizza delivery driver, and Sara McDowell, who was passing by. Their statements and videos describe police as the aggressors.
One witness video shows Burbank delivering Taser strikes while Ellis “puts his hands up” in apparent submission, before Ellis’ head “falls limply towards the pavement,” according to the charges. Collins can be seen pushing Ellis’ face into the pavement.
Rankine arrived late, and helped put leg restraints on Ellis. According to the charges, after Ellis was hogtied — his cuffed wrists strapped to his shackled ankles — Rankine used excessive force by leaning on Ellis’ back and holding him facedown, instead of rolling him to his side to breathe more easily, as required by Tacoma’s de-escalation policy.
Rankine acknowledged in his statement to investigators that a paramedic expressed concern that Ellis was “gonna code” unless he got an IV, and asked Rankine to uncuff Ellis.
Rankine told the paramedic that he did not want to uncuff Ellis “in case he starts fighting again,” charging documents said. A policing expert who reviewed the case for the AG determined “Ellis posed no threat after he was hogtied,” particularly with 20 officers then on the scene.
Only after paramedics insisted did Rankine remove the restraint. Ellis died at the scene. The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled it a homicide due to oxygen deprivation caused by physical restraint, with methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease listed as contributing factors.
Tacoma police placed Collins, Burbank, Rankine and Ford — who has not been charged — on leave twice over the course of the initial investigation: first for two weeks, and then again after the medical examiner’s homicide finding.
Burbank previously worked as an officer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he was investigated 10 times for use of force between December 2011 and August 2014, as well as complaints of wrongful arrest and racially biased policing, according to records obtained by The Seattle Times. He was cleared each time.
Burbank, Collins and Rankine were not the subject of any formal complaints involving excessive force in Tacoma at the time of Ellis’ death, according to their personnel records.
The charges are the culmination of an unusually complicated process involving three different investigations. The initial investigation by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department collapsed on the eve of its conclusion when it disclosed a conflict of interest — Sanders had helped restrain Ellis.
The sheriff’s investigation of Ellis’ death was criticized by Gov. Jay Inslee and Ferguson. A Seattle Times review of records found fundamental flaws, including that the Sheriff’s Department didn’t interview eyewitnesses.
The Pierce County sheriff’s initial investigation listed the nature of the incident in which Ellis died as “assault,” with Ellis as the suspect, not the victim. No search warrants were sought against the officers involved, but a warrant was obtained for Ellis’ room, on the premise that he had assaulted officers.
After the conflict-of-interest disclosure, Inslee stepped in and handed the investigation over to the Washington State Patrol. It concluded a more thorough probe more than a month ago, including interviews with at least six eyewitnesses and an analysis of audio and video recordings of the incident. Collins, Burbank and Rankine declined to be interviewed by WSP investigators.
The WSP investigation also found a fifth Tacoma officer, Farinas, was present at the scene, and placed a nylon spit mask over Ellis’ face after he was already hogtied. The medical examiner found that contributed to his death. That officer was placed on leave in December, and was not charged Thursday.
But an attorney for the Ellis family, James Bible, said the WSP investigation was deferential to the officers and insufficient, prompting the AG’s office to finish the final leg of the investigation itself. The state patrol and attorney general’s office declined to comment about Bible’s remarks.
Ferguson enlisted outside help beginning in February from renowned Seattle attorney in private practice Patty Eakes, who prosecuted Green River serial killer Gary Ridgway, to help with the charging decision. She will lead the AG’s prosecution team, with Assistant Attorney General Kent Liu, according to Ferguson’s office.
Ripples across policy, law
Ellis’ death has caused ripples across state and local policing policies and laws. The department had no training or policy regarding safe use of chokeholds or spit masks at the time of Ellis’ death, but has since banned chokeholds, said spokesperson Wendy Haddow.
Tacoma also has now begun to equip officers with body cameras, although that effort predated Ellis’ death.
After problems emerged with the Pierce County sheriff’s investigation, Ferguson launched a review of more than 20 deaths involving other police agencies during the first half of 2020 to see if the investigations complied with new mandates for greater independence and transparency in use-of-force probes. It found widespread noncompliance.
Ellis’ name was frequently invoked during the recently concluded legislative session, during which measures were passed to track police killings in the state for the first time; create a state unit to investigate police use of force that kills or seriously injures anyone; and ban chokeholds statewide, among other reforms.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, who soon after Ellis’ death unsuccessfully called for the officers involved to be fired, said Thursday the charges are “an important turning point for Tacoma” on the road to “lasting systemic change.”
In December, the Pierce County Council reversed its long-standing opposition and adopted a small sales tax to expand behavioral health services, with councilmembers citing Ellis’ case in the debate. Ellis had struggled with mental illness and substance abuse, and had a felony identity theft conviction.
But Ellis’ sister is skeptical whether Washington’s new laws will truly produce practical change, based on her experience with I-940, the measure approved to increase police accountability around use of force.
Carter-Mixon also believes that, while well-intentioned, some new laws don’t have the teeth to make a difference. “Signing a bill into law isn’t going to change officers doing what they want to do,” she said.
The family has announced an intent to file a wrongful-death lawsuit against Tacoma, seeking $30 million.
“Things come to pass…”
In the Pacific Northwest, Ellis’ name was shouted alongside those of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black people killed by police during the summer’s racial justice protests. A three-story mural of his face graces a building in a historically Black section of Tacoma.
In the weeks before Ellis died, he was undergoing regular drug testing and mental health and addiction counseling. Ellis leaned into religion and declared himself “a punk for Jesus,” evading trouble, said Kimberly Mays and Cedric Armstrong, who operated the clean-and-sober home where Ellis was living. On the night he died, Ellis went to church.
After his death, the sheriff’s search warrant didn’t find any drugs, but officers did find an unfinished note Ellis had written to himself. It was topped with three crosses, beseeching God to “Allow these things to come to pass.”
His checklist: call a longtime friend; call King County about his case; and remain sober.
A Washington State Patrol investigation documented the backgrounds and roles officers played in the fatal encounter.
Matthew Collins, Tacoma police
Hired: June 2015
Background: U.S. Army veteran; trainer of other Tacoma police officers in defensive tactics and member of the SWAT team.
Investigation revealed: Choked Ellis from behind; hit Ellis’ head and face repeatedly with elbows and possibly fists and pinned Ellis to the pavement with knees to his head, neck or upper back; handcuffed Ellis as he lay prone.
Christopher “Shane” Burbank, Tacoma police
Hired: December 2015
Annual salary: $124,741
Background: U.S. Army veteran; previously a police officer in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Role: Knocked Ellis to the ground with an SUV door; stunned Ellis four times with a Taser; wrestled Ellis and detained him on the ground; handcuffed Ellis as he lay prone.
Hired: August 2018
Annual salary: $65,634
Background: U.S. Army veteran; Rankine told Ford he arrived at the scene of Ellis’ death with the mindset that no one would hurt his “brothers” again, experiencing flashbacks from his service.
Role: Knelt on Ellis’ right shoulder and lower back before sitting across Ellis’ back; did not stop when Ellis said for the fourth and final time that he couldn’t breathe.