WSP report raises questions over officers’ accounts of Manuel Ellis death

Feb 3, 2021, 11:35 AM | Updated: Feb 4, 2021, 7:30 am
Manuel Ellis, independent investigations...
People hold signs during a vigil for Manuel Ellis, a black man whose March death while in Tacoma Police custody was recently found to be a homicide, near the site of his death on June 3, 2020 in Tacoma, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Manuel Ellis died at the hands of Tacoma police in March 2020. Now, a report compiled by Washington State Patrol casts doubt on conflicting testimony delivered by officers involved in Ellis’ death.

Manuel Ellis family attorney frustrated by ‘mockery of justice’

Ellis — who had initially been stopped for allegedly attempting to break into a car — had complained to officers while being restrained that he couldn’t breathe, echoing a similar scenario that played out for George Floyd months later in Minnesota, which led to a summer of heated protests and calls for police reform across the nation.

Video recordings — including one from a nearby Amazon Ring camera — and witness statements confirm that Ellis told officers he was unable to breathe numerous times. Testimony from the officers themselves, though, conflicts with that evidence, according to a report on WSP’s investigation from the Seattle Times.

That includes a statement from TPD Officer Christopher Burbank, when asked by investigators whether it was clear Ellis was struggling to breathe prior to his death.

“Not that I recall, no,” he answered, contrary to video evidence showing Ellis stating, “I can’t breathe, sir.”

Testimony from Burbank and fellow officer Matthew Collins — who first engaged Ellis together — differs in several key ways, casting doubt on their account of the night’s events.

According to Collins, Ellis lifted him off the ground “like a child” and threw him into the street. Burbank’s account leaves that detail out, describing a scuffle between Collins and Ellis in simpler terms as “a melee.”

As the conflict escalated, Collins said he attempted to employ a chokehold on Ellis, while Burbank reported discharging his Taser on him four times.

“It appeared (Ellis) wasn’t affected by anything,” Burbank claimed.

Video and accounts from eyewitnesses tell a different story. While video does show Collins holding Ellis in a chokehold from behind while Burbank discharged his Taser, Ellis appeared not to be resisting, instead holding his hands up and attempting to capitulate to the officers.

Photos: Vigil in Tacoma for Manuel Ellis

After the Taser brought Ellis to the ground, Collins can be seen pressing Ellis’ head down with his knees, all while officers can be seen hitting him repeatedly.

“None of the footage, or the people who recorded it, show Ellis acting violently toward officers, although he is squirming as the officers described,” the Seattle Times’ recounting of the video evidence details.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson received WSP’s investigation in early November, labeling it the “top priority” for his office’s Criminal Justice Division. Ellis’ death was ruled a homicide by the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Officer early last summer.

Four TPD officers — including Collins and Burbank — were placed on paid leave shortly after the medical examiner’s declaration. The WSP’s report does not contain recommendations concerning whether the involved officers should or shouldn’t be punished.

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WSP report raises questions over officers’ accounts of Manuel Ellis death