This ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Police Killing Could Reignite Protests
New videos of the death of 33-year-old Manuel Ellis in Tacoma, Washington—and squabbling law enforcement—could send the case off the rails.
A black man who died of lack of oxygen in police custody. A disturbing video recorded by a bystander who begged cops to stop. Calls to fire—and prosecute—four officers involved.
This case isn’t that of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed in police custody two weeks ago, setting off historic protests over killings of people of color and other police brutality. It’s that of Manuel Ellis, a Tacoma, Washington, man killed in March.
As protests over police brutality and racial injustice sweep the country, Ellis’s case has been unfolding in Washington, with potentially explosive implications. Though a medical examiner previously ruled that the 33-year-old died of hypoxia (lack of oxygen)—along with other contributing factors—while being restrained in early March, disturbing footage of the incident emerged last week.
On Tuesday afternoon, a lawyer for Ellis’s family released a video he said appeared to show a police officer telling Ellis to “shut the fuck up” in the final moments of his life. With prosecutors poised to receive a review of the incident from a local sheriff’s department Wednesday, advocates for Ellis’s family say the video is fuel for their calls for an independent investigation.
How a slew of investigators and prosecutors handle the case could help determine if it serves as a national rallying cry that reinvigorates protests across the country.
A harrowing cellphone video shows some of the events leading to Ellis’s death. In it, bystander Sara McDowell films Tacoma police appearing to punch Ellis as he lays on the side of a street.
“Stop!” McDowell yells. “Oh my God, stop hitting him. Just arrest him.”
A second clip appears to show officers holding Ellis down on his stomach. Audio from a police radio captured Ellis telling officers “I can’t breathe.”
Tacoma police previously claimed Ellis had been “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles” and became “combative” when he approached them. But McDowell told the New York Times that Ellis appeared to have approached the police car in a friendly manner before an officer knocked him over by opening the door suddenly.
New video released by Ellis’s family’s lawyer, James Bible, on Tuesday appears to show an officer telling Ellis to “shut the fuck up” during the deadly encounter. Although the audio is garbled (an earlier version heard on police radio was interpreted as “don’t let up”), the family’s legal team says it suggests an unwillingness by Ellis’s arresting officers to respond to his cries of pain. The family received it via a local who had captured the footage on a security camera, according to Bible.
An investigation by the Tacoma News Tribune found that officers fired a taser at Ellis. Later, they bound his hands and feet, and placed a “spit hood” over his head while he was on his stomach. Some time after Ellis told officers he couldn’t breathe, they called an ambulance, which found Ellis “unconscious with minimal respiratory drive, and deteriorating.” He died on the scene, and a medical examiner said that while heart disease and substance use may have been contributing factors, “physical restraint” was the cause of death.
All four officers (Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, Masyih Ford, and Timothy Rankine) were involved in restraining him, according to the medical examiner’s report. They were placed on leave afterward, only to return to duty—and then be placed on leave again last week, as protests spread across the nation.
McDowell’s video and the police audio clips have only recently come to light. But even as the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the case, Bible—the lawyer for Ellis’s family—says the agency is siding with police.
“We have absolutely no faith in the sheriff’s office at this time, in terms of any sort of investigation,” he told The Daily Beast before unveiling the new video Tuesday. “The sheriff has demonstrated repeatedly that they’re not independent in terms of their investigation. From the outset, they have sought to absolve the officers of any wrongdoing. Any additional evidence that we bring forward, they seek a way to downplay its meaning and absolve the officers.”
Detective Ed Troyer of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office said the department was being transparent. “We’ve done a thorough investigation. All the information people have brought us, we will present to the prosecutor this week. We collect facts and the pros make the decisions,” he told The Daily Beast. “I know James Bible wants to have the state and the Attorney General’s office take a look. We welcome that. We want them to look at it. We have nothing to hide.”
Attempts to reach the four officers were not immediately successful. Reached for comment, the Tacoma Police Department directed inquiries to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office.
Debate over just who should handle the investigation into Ellis’s death has rattled officials. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office was expected to turn over its findings on Wednesday, with the county prosecutor using them to decide whether or not to press charges against the four officers involved in Ellis’s arrest.
But even the county prosecutor, Mary Robnett, wants state law enforcement to run its own independent investigation, concurrent to hers.
“[T]he best path forward is for the Attorney General to be granted concurrent jurisdiction in this case now,” she said in a statement last week. “Taking a wait-and-see approach will mean he does not have the ‘complete picture’ and full information he needs to make decisions about this case going forward. That will inevitably, despite reassurances I have been given to the contrary, delay this matter further.”
Gov. Jay Inslee has offered to have the state AG review the Pierce County investigation. But that’s not enough, according to Monet Carter-Mixon, Ellis’s sister.
“I’m telling you right now, if something doesn’t happen you’re looking at another Minneapolis,” Carter-Mixon said during a Monday rally, referring to the protests over George Floyd’s death, which set off nationwide demonstrations. “The governor needs to stop doing wordplay and playing games.”
Although Ellis’s death came over two months earlier, release of McDowell’s video coincided with protests over Floyd’s death, Bible noted.
“There was concern about this case prior to Floyd’s death, but there wasn’t a lot of proof,” he said. “I think the moment folks first heard a radio scanner with the words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ it piqued people’s interest.”
The Tacoma Police Union has dismissed comparisons to Floyd’s death.
“Tacoma is not Minneapolis. The incident involving Mr. Ellis here in Tacoma was not the same as the incident involving Mr. Floyd," the union said in a statement. "This is not the time to sacrifice dedicated public servants at the altar of public sentiment."
The statement aligns them with other police unions around the country (like those in Buffalo, New York, and New York City), which have released statements defending officers accused of brutality. The stance also clashes with that of Tacoma’s mayor, who called for the four officers’ termination. In their statement, the union accused the mayor of acting on “misplaced rage.”
For his own part, Bible insisted the Tacoma Police Department’s ties to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office meant the sheriff could not be impartial.
“Recuse yourself, admit the conflict, note the conflict, say it’s a natural conflict, because it is,” Bible said.