Weeks before George Floyd was murdered by ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, another Black man in Tacoma, Wash., died in police custody shortly after telling the officers who were restraining him, “I can’t breathe.” That man was 33-year-old Manuel Ellis, and on Thursday, two of the police officers involved in his death were charged with murder while a third officer was charged with manslaughter.
The Associated Press reports that Tacoma officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins have been charged with second-degree murder and Timothy Rankine has been charged with first-degree manslaughter, according to a statement by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
As The Root previously reported, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Ellis died of respiratory arrest resulting from hypoxia due to physical restraint. Officers claimed that Ellis was the aggressor during the March 3, 2020 incident in which they said he had been harassing motorists on the street. The officers said they confronted Ellis and he started pounding on their patrol car then later “picked up the officer by his vest and slam-dunked him on the ground,” according to a spokesman of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
A month later, cellphone video taken by a bystander was released that reportedly showed Ellis being beaten and restrained by police. About a week after that, video recorded on a nearby Ring camera was released. In that video, Ellis can be heard telling one of the officers, “I can’t breathe, sir,” which Ellis’ family attorney called a “clear sign that it’s not only a struggle for breath but an attempt to still be respectful in your last moments of life,” as well as a “sign that he wasn’t the aggressive person law enforcement claimed he was.”
“Ellis died during the course of and in furtherance of Burbank and Collins’ felonious assault and/or unlawful imprisonment of Ellis,” prosecutors wrote in court documents, according to the News Tribune. The officers are accused of striking Ellis multiple times, tasing him multiple times and using a neck restraint “all without justification for these uses of force.”
Rankine and a fourth officer, Masyih Ford, arrived at the scene within minutes and joined the struggle. Rankine reportedly tased Ellis and then “moved all of his weight into the middle of Ellis’ back,” the Tribune reports. Several witnesses came forward with stories that contradict the accounts of police officers that painted Ellis as the aggressor.
According to the Tribune, Burbank and Collins could face life in prison if they’re convicted, while Rankine is facing six-and-a-half to eight and a half years. The five officers involved in the altercation have been on administrative leave.