TACOMA, Wash. — An anonymous passerby’s cell phone video shows a Tacoma Police officer punching and aggressively restraining Manuel Ellis shortly before he died in handcuffs.
The officer can be heard twice saying, “Put your hands behind your back,” even as he appears to be on top of Ellis. The video was released Thursday by the racial justice organization Tacoma Action Collective.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s office determined this week that Ellis’ death in March was a homicide and that his cause of death was a loss of oxygen due to physical restraint.
In a press conference, community organizers and civil rights leaders flanked the Ellis family as they demanded a prosecutorial investigation by the state attorney general.
Ellis’ mother, Marcia Carter, fought back tears as she recounted her last conversation with her son.
“Those were the last words I heard my son say to me: ‘I love you Mom. I love you Mom.’ And I can't hear that ever again. I won't be able to hear that,” she said.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the matter and planned to turn the case over to the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office by next week.
But James Bible, a civil rights attorney for the Ellis family, said the sheriff’s department’s involvement is “a natural conflict."
"These two jurisdictions work far too closely together,” he said.
Bible proposed that another agency handle the investigation and that the Washington State Attorney General’s office handle the prosecutorial investigation.
Brionna Aho, a spokesperson with the state Attorney General’s office said the office would only be allowed to take on the case at the behest of the Pierce County Prosecutor or Gov. Jay Inslee.
Ellis could be heard on scanner traffic March 3 saying “I can’t breathe” after Tacoma police handcuffed him at the intersection of 96th Ave and S. Ainsworth. Not long after, he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer said Tacoma Police put Ellis in restraints after he banged on the window of a passing car and assaulted an officer.
“Our guys did a thorough job of investigating this,” Troyer said.
When asked about the newly-surfaced cell phone video, Troyer said he had not yet seen it, but encouraged the person who shot it to reach out to authorities.
The Sheriff’s Department released what appeared to be still shots from surveillance video of two cars that passed the scene the night of March 3 around 11:22 p.m. in hopes of identifying possible witnesses in the car.
Authorities are hoping to identify a woman in a dark-colored sedan and a driver possibly named “Deon” in a white vehicle. Detectives are also looking for the occupants of a silver sedan, possibly a Chrysler 300.
The four Tacoma Police officers who were involved in the incident are Christopher Burbank, 34; Matthew Collins, 37; Masyih Ford, 28; and Timothy Rankine, 31. Police said two of the officers are white, one is black, and one is Asian.
The officers were initially placed on administrative leave after Ellis’ homicide but later allowed to continue working. After the medical examiner’s results were released, the officers were again placed on administrative leave.
Ellis’ family said investigators had stonewalled the family over the past three months.
“If it wasn’t for me and Manny’s friends screaming at the top of lungs and George Floyd dying, this would’ve been swept under the rug,” said Monet Carter-Mixon.
Late Thursday, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards condemned Ellis' death at the hands of police.
In a statement, Woodards called for a "complete and independent investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis. Nothing less is acceptable, and I plan to discuss this further on Friday with the City Council."
Later Thursday, she made a public address on the new video, condemning the officers' actions, and saying she was "enraged, and angered, and disappointed."
Woodards said she would call for the investigation and the firing of the four officers and she would also call for the city to issue body cams for Tacoma police.
"It does take a video for so many people to believe the truth about systemic racism and its violent impact on black lives, on my life," she said.
"We waited way too long, and we have heard too many excuses. It stops tonight."
The Tacoma Police Union Local No. 6, which is the union for officers and sergeants, issued the following statement in response to Mayor Woodards' public address:
“Earlier this evening, Mayor Woodards spoke at a press conference about an officer involved incident in March 2020. Without any facts, without an investigation, without due process, and with less than a minute of short, blurry, partial Twitter videos in hand, the Mayor passed judgment on the actions of four Tacoma Police Officers. She called them criminals. She called for their prosecution. She called for their termination from employment. And she called for all of these things without an ounce of evidence to support her words beyond misplaced rage.
“We are a country built upon values. What happened in Minneapolis to George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police was wrong. It was repugnant to the badge. It was repugnant to humanity. But understand; Tacoma is not Minneapolis. The incident involving Mr. Ellis here in Tacoma was not the same as the incident involving Mr. Floyd. Tacoma Officers Burbank, Collins, Ford, and Rankine did not murder Mr. Ellis.
“What’s perhaps most shocking in the Mayor’s statement is her lack of knowledge about any of the four involved officers. Does she know that one of the officers is African-American? Does she know that they are fathers and sons, brothers and uncles? Does she know that some are military veterans who served our nation with honor? Does she even care? Apparently not, if it means interfering with her hyperbolic storyline that four Tacoma officers murdered an African-American man.
“Our values tell us that when a life is lost, we must thoroughly investigate what happened to learn why it happened. The Tacoma Police Union welcomes any full and fair investigation into the events involving Mr. Ellis. We welcome the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s review. We welcome the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s review. Because with all of the facts – with evidence of what actually happened in hand – the public will see that these four officers did no wrong.
“This is a time for leadership. This is a time for reason. This is a time for healing our Nation, our State, and our City. This is not the time to sacrifice dedicated public servants at the altar of public sentiment, especially when that sentiment is almost wholly fueled by the uninformed anger of a theatrical politician.”
The Tacoma Police Management Association Local 26, which is the union for lieutenants and captains, issued the following statement in response to Mayor Woodards:
"Last night Mayor Woodards gave a press conference, passing judgement on four Tacoma Police Officers demanding their firing without an investigation. Mayor Woodards’ inflammatory language calling the Officers criminals and calling for their prosecution before the incident is reviewed by the Prosecutors Office does not suit the office of the Mayor. We expect more from our Mayor than an angry theatrical reaction to a short partial video of our Officers attempting to take Mr. Ellis into custody.
"As police management, and citizens, we were all sickened and appalled by the killing of Mr. George Floyd. The actions taken by those officers tarnishes the values, to which we have dedicated our lives. However, the circumstances involved in Mr. Ellis’ death are different from what occurred in Minneapolis.
"The Tacoma Police Management Association welcomes a full, independent and impartial investigation into the actions that tragically ended in the death of Mr. Ellis. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office investigation, when reviewed by the Pierce County Prosecutors Office, will reveal the evidence of what occurred on March 3, 2020.
"The Tacoma Police Management Association calls on Mayor Victoria Woodards to retract her statement until the independent investigation is complete. Mayor Woodards’ reckless, inflammatory language only escalates anger instead of unifying our city and awaiting a full report of facts. Mayor Woodards’ blatant and concerted disregard for the rule of law serves only one purpose, which is to undermine the constitutional rights of all citizens. The officers involved in this tragedy must be afforded the same rights as all citizens, Mayor Woodards’ rush to judgement is not what we or the citizens of Tacoma expect from our Mayor."