Tacoma police officers acquitted in death of Manuel Ellis

A Pierce County jury found the three not guilty in the death of Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man who died during a police stop in March 2020.

A woman walks past a mural honoring Manuel "Manny" Ellis

A woman walks past a mural honoring Manuel “Manny” Ellis, Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. Ellis died on March 3, 2020, after he was restrained by police officers. Earlier in the day Thursday, the Washington state attorney general filed criminal charges against three police officers in the death of Ellis, who before he died told the Tacoma officers restraining him that he couldn’t breathe. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The three Tacoma police officers who were tried in the killing of Manuel Ellis in their custody were found not guilty on all charges Thursday.

Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins faced second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter charges in Ellis’ death. Officer Timothy Rankine faced a charge of first-degree manslaughter. They were tried before a jury in Pierce County Superior Court. Three other law enforcement officers were present at Ellis’ arrest, but not charged.

Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died during a police stop in Tacoma on March 3, 2020, after the three officers restrained him. Ellis’ death came a few months before the death of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers sparked nationwide protests about police brutality against Black people. Like Floyd, Ellis died while telling Tacoma officers, “I can’t breathe.” 

The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Ellis’ death a homicide, and determined that his cause of death was hypoxia due to physical restraint, with methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as other contributing factors. During the trial, Dr. Thomas Clark, who was the medical examiner at the time and performed Ellis’ autopsy, testified that Ellis’ death was caused by the officers’ actions, according to The Seattle Times. Lawyers for the officers emphasized the contributing factors in their defense. 

Burbank, Collins and Rankine were the first law enforcement officers charged in a case of deadly force since the passage of Initiative 940, a police accountability law that Washington voters approved in 2018.

After Ellis’ death, the state passed several laws aimed at increasing police accountability, including the banning of neck restraints and calling for independent investigations in cases of deadly police use of force.

Advocates for police accountability said the Tacoma verdict shows that the changes in the law have not been enough.

“Seeing these officers stand trial gave me a sense of hope, but this verdict proves just how far we have to go to hold police accountable for killing our family members,” Po Leapai, whose cousin, Iosia Faletogo, was killed by Seattle police in 2018, said in a prepared statement released by the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards held a press conference after the verdict. Woodards acknowledged the pain of the Ellis family, and said the city is committed to making a “just, transparent and safer Tacoma for all of our residents.”

“This verdict undoubtedly elicits a wide range of emotions from each and every one of us including myself,” Woodards said. “Specifically, I want to acknowledge the anger, the distrust, the doubt, the fear, the hurt and the exhaustion that we as Black people have experienced as a result of policing in this country.”

The city of Tacoma also released a prepared statement confirming that the city's internal investigation of Ellis’ death is expected to conclude within the next day, and Police Chief Avery Moore will make a determination on any potential discipline to the officers, including possible termination, within two weeks.

“The past nearly four years have been filled with wide-spread anger, mistrust, and apprehension and have severely divided the people of this city. Even though this criminal process has concluded, Tacoma’s elected and city leaders understand there are many questions about where we all go from here, as a city, as a community, and as a police department. With today’s verdicts, we affirm and recommit our dedication to accountability and transformation does not end,” the city’s official prepared statement read in part.

Updated 5:47 p.m.: This story has been updated with additional information about the internal investigation, and with a statement from Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards.

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