Prosecutors in Washington State said that Manuel Ellis had pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” after police officers punched him, squeezed his neck, pressed on his back and placed a spit hood over his head.
Three police officers in Tacoma, Wash., were charged on Thursday in the killing of a Black man who had pleaded “I can’t breathe,” after they punched him, squeezed his neck, pressed on his back and placed a spit hood over his head, prosecutors said.
Two of the officers, Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins, were charged with second-degree murder, and the third, Timothy Rankine, was charged with first-degree manslaughter in the death of Manuel Ellis on March 3, 2020, Washington State’s attorney general said.
The attorney general’s office said it was the second time that homicide charges had been filed in the state against law enforcement officers since the passage of Initiative 940 in 2018. The voter-approved initiative redefined when deadly force is justified, making it clear that there should be an increased role for juries in determining whether such force constitutes a crime.
The charges were also the latest to be brought as police violence has come under more intense scrutiny since George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, less than three months after Mr. Ellis was killed. Mr. Floyd, who was Black, had also pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” as a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
Family members said Mr. Ellis, 33, was the father of an 11-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter. A talented musician at his church, he had played drums with the worship band earlier on the night he was killed, the attorney general’s office said.
Later, Mr. Ellis was walking home after getting a late-night snack at a 7-Eleven when he came upon Officers Burbank, 35, and Collins, 38, both of whom are white, sitting in their police car, prosecutors said. Mr. Ellis stopped and spoke briefly to the officers in an encounter that witnesses described as peaceful and respectful, prosecutors said. Mr. Ellis then began to walk away, prosecutors said.
According to witnesses, Officer Burbank swung open the passenger door, hitting Mr. Ellis from behind and knocking him to his knees.
Officer Burbank then got on top of Mr. Ellis, prosecutors said. Bystander videos, a doorbell camera with audio and video, and dispatch radio traffic captured what happened next, prosecutors said.
Officer Burbank wrapped his arms around Mr. Ellis, lifted him into the air and drove him down onto the pavement, hitting him with one of his fists, prosecutors said. Officer Collins then moved toward Mr. Ellis and brought his weight down on him, prosecutors said.
With Mr. Ellis underneath him, Officer Collins — a 215-pound SWAT team member and Army veteran trained in martial arts — began hitting Mr. Ellis’s head with his fist, prosecutors said. Officers Collins can be seen on one video hitting Mr. Ellis’s head four times, as Mr. Ellis screamed, prosecutors said.
“Hey! Stop!” one bystander screamed, according to prosecutors. “Oh my God, stop hitting him! Stop hitting him! Just arrest him.”
Officer Collins then wrapped his arm around the front of Mr. Ellis’s neck and locked his hands together while squeezing, applying a “lateral vascular neck restraint,” prosecutors said.
Mr. Ellis was not fighting back, prosecutors said. Three witnesses said they never saw Mr. Ellis hit the officers. “He wasn’t even defending himself,” one said, according to prosecutors, adding that video evidence corroborated that account.
Officer Burbank fired a Taser at Mr. Ellis, as Officer Collins continued to squeeze his neck, prosecutors said.
“Hey, y’all in the wrong right now,” another witness said.
After Mr. Ellis was jolted for five seconds, Officer Collins released his grip on Mr. Ellis’s neck and Mr. Ellis’s head fell limply toward the pavement, prosecutors said. Officer Collins then pushed his arm onto the back of Mr. Ellis’s head or neck, pressing his face into the pavement, prosecutors said.
As Mr. Ellis began to scream and writhe, the officers held his arms behind his back and pressed down on his body, and Officer Burbank jolted Mr. Ellis again with the Taser, prosecutors said.
According to a recording captured by a Vivint doorbell camera on a house across the street, prosecutors said, Mr. Ellis said, clearly: “Can’t breathe, sir. Can’t breathe!” Less than 15 seconds later, he can again be heard pleading with the officers, saying either “Breathe sir?” or “Please, sir?” prosecutors said.
Officer Rankine, who is 32 and Asian, was among a group of officers who responded as backup. Prosecutors said he started pressing on Mr. Ellis’s back, getting on top of Mr. Ellis almost as if he were in a “seated position.”
Mr. Ellis can be heard saying again, “I can’t breathe,” and pleading: “Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe, sir,” prosecutors said.
Officer Rankine later recalled, according to prosecutors, hearing Mr. Ellis say “in a very calm, normal voice” that he could not breathe and responding that “if you’re talking to me, you can breathe just fine.”
An officer put a spit hood on Mr. Ellis’s head, while he was hogtied on his stomach and while Officer Rankine was applying pressure to his back, prosecutors said. The brand of spit hood includes instructions that specifically state that it should not be used on anyone “having difficulty breathing,” prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said Mr. Ellis remained under Officer Rankine, hogtied and face down, for six to nine minutes until the Fire Department arrived. Mr. Ellis’s last known words were the same ones he had repeated throughout the attack, prosecutors said: “Can’t breathe.”
He was declared dead at the scene, prosecutors said.
The Pierce County medical examiner at the time, Dr. Thomas Clark, determined that the cause of death was “hypoxia,” or a lack of oxygen, “due to physical restraint,” prosecutors said.
Dr. Clark said that, although blood collected from Mr. Ellis showed the presence of methamphetamine, his death was not likely caused by methamphetamine intoxication, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said that several officers on the scene had recalled hearing Officers Burbank and Collins say they had seen Mr. Ellis trying to get into a car and then hit their police car. That account, however, was contradicted by three witnesses, none of whom saw Mr. Ellis hit the police car or the officers at any point, prosecutors said.
It was not immediately clear if Officers Burbank, Rankine and Collins had lawyers.
The Tacoma Police Union defended the officers, saying, “We are disappointed that facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be a politically motivated witch hunt.”
“We look forward to trial,” the union said. “An unbiased jury will find that the officers broke no laws and, in fact, acted in accordance with the law, their training, and Tacoma Police Department policies. An unbiased jury will not allow these fine public servants to be sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment.”