Attorneys

three Tacoma cops plead not responsible in Manuel Ellis’ demise

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Tacoma officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine pleaded not guilty by video conference from jail Friday after Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Thursday that the officers were being charged in the death of Manuel Ellis.

Each officer’s bail was set at $100,000, however, Ellis’ family said the bail was not high enough, saying it should have been $1 million.

“It’s very hurtful to know that the judge was willing to give them such a low bail, when I know people who have committed crimes for less who received way higher bails,” Monet Carter-Mixon, Mauel Ellis’ sister said.

The family called the hearing a long-awaited first step toward justice.

The attorneys for the officers had a very different take and argued during the hearing that there should be no bail.

“That’s just ridiculous! If he wasn’t a police officer and if there weren’t TV cameras and if this were not a social issue that wouldn’t happen,” Bryan Hershman, the attorney for officer Rankine said.

The officers were released from jail after voluntarily turning themselves in on Thursday.

Burbank and Collins are being charged with second-degree murder and Rankine with first-degree manslaughter.

Ellis, 33, died on March 3, 2020, after an on-camera confrontation with Tacoma police officers.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide due to a lack of oxygen, and initially said methamphetamine and an enlarged heart may have played a contributing role.

But now the charging documents say after the autopsy, the Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark, reviewed additional evidence — such as learning about the weight of an officer on Ellis’ back and heart monitor readings from paramedics — before Ellis died.

The documents read, “Dr. Clark has also opined that, although blood collected from Ellis at autopsy showed the presence of methamphetamine, Ellis’s death was not likely caused by methamphetamine intoxication.”

That determination, along with a cellphone video of the incident, spurred calls for a wider investigation and prompted the legislature to create a new independent agency to investigate police use of deadly force.

Initially, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department was handling the investigation, but months later, authorities found that staff from the department were involved in detaining Ellis.

Gov. Jay Inslee then directed the Washington State Patrol to investigate the case and referred the charging decision to Ferguson.

Ferguson put together a team to help review the investigation that would lead to a charging decision.

The investigation included interviewing witnesses who had not previously been interviewed by police. The AG’s office also identified and examined additional forensic evidence and retained an expert on police use of force.

Video and audio experts synchronized the different audio and visual evidence from multiple sources and produced a transcript of the incident.

Read the probable cause document.

For months, the Ellis family demanded that serious criminal charges be filed against the officers involved.

This is the first time the Washington Attorney General’s Office has criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force and the second time murder charges have been filed in Washington against officers since Initiative 940 was adopted in November 2018.

Interim Police Chief Mike Ake of the Tacoma Police Department released a statement:

Today, the Attorney General’s Office has filed charges against three Tacoma Police Officers regarding the Manuel Ellis investigation. Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins were charged with Second-Degree Murder, and Timothy Rankine was charged with First-Degree Manslaughter. We recognize this decision will not lessen the pain our community is feeling. Conversations and actions regarding police reform are as important as ever. We realize we must reduce outcomes that cause pain and diminish trust within our community. We are committed to upholding accountability of individual officers who violate their oath to protect and serve. The Tacoma Police Department will now start its own internal review of the actions of the officers involved in this incident. Based on that investigation, we will make further determination regarding any disciplinary actions, policy, or training changes that may occur based on the findings. We will issue Notice of Investigation to officers involved in the incident. This will also include determining the departmental status of the involved officers in accordance with departmental policies and procedures, contractual obligations and following due process. In alignment with our commitment to transparency and transformation, we will provide regular updates regarding our internal investigation.

The Tacoma Police Union released this statement after the charges were announced:

“We are disappointed that facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be a politically motivated witch hunt. We look forward to trial. 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. Like every community member, our officers are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

All three officers have been described as decorated military veterans, with medals for valor and purple hearts.

They were ordered to surrender their guns, their passports and not to travel more than one county away from their homes.

They’re expected back in court in two weeks.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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