Officers Cleared in Manuel Ellis’ Death to Each Receive $500K to Leave Department

By Gene Johnson | January 18, 2024

Three Washington state police officers who were cleared of criminal charges in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis — a Black man who was shocked, beaten and restrained facedown on a sidewalk as he pleaded for breath — will each receive $500,000 to leave the Tacoma Police Department, according to documents released.

“This says to the public that these are excellent officers, and it’s a shame Tacoma is losing them,” said Anne Bremner, an attorney for one of the officers, Timothy Rankine.

A jury acquitted Rankine, 34, and co-defendants Matthew Collins, 40, and Christopher Burbank, 38, in December following a trial that lasted more than two months. Rankine was charged with manslaughter, while Collins and Burbank were charged with manslaughter and second-degree murder.

The city released copies of the “voluntary separation” agreements with the officers Tuesday as police Chief Avery Moore announced findings that none violated the use-of-force policy in effect on March 3, 2020. Collins was found to have violated a policy concerning courtesy.

The use-of-force policy has since been updated. The old one “failed to serve the best interests of the police department or the community,” Moore said.

“These agreements support a responsible, constructive path forward for our community and the Tacoma Police Department,” City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said in a written statement.

In an email, Matthew Ericksen, an attorney for Ellis’ family, called it “perverse” and said the officers were “effectively being rewarded” for his death. He noted that the officers had already been paid about $1.5 million total while being on leave for nearly four years.

“The worst TPD officers are also the highest paid TPD officers!” Ericksen wrote. “Everyone in the community should be upset by this.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle said last week that it is reviewing the case; the Justice Department can bring prosecutions for federal civil rights violations, but the scope of the review was not disclosed.

Ellis, 33, was walking home with doughnuts from a 7-Eleven in Tacoma, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Seattle, when he passed a patrol car stopped at a red light, with Collins and Burbank inside.

The officers claimed they saw Ellis try to open the door of a passing car at the intersection and he became aggressive when they tried to question him about it. Collins testified that Ellis demonstrated “superhuman strength” by lifting Collins off the ground and throwing him through the air.

But three witnesses testified they saw no such thing. After what appeared to be a brief conversation between Ellis and the officers, who are both white, Burbank, in the passenger seat, threw open his door, knocking Ellis down, they said.

The witnesses — one of whom yelled for the officers to stop attacking Ellis — and a doorbell surveillance camera captured video of parts of the encounter. The video showed Ellis with his hands up in a surrender position as Burbank shot a Taser at his chest and Collins wrapped an arm around his neck from behind.

Rankine was among the many other officers who responded. Ellis was already handcuffed facedown when he arrived. Rankine knelt on his upper back.

Video showed Ellis addressing the officers as “sir” while telling them he couldn’t breathe. One officer is heard responding, “Shut the (expletive) up, man.”

Attorneys for the officers argued that Ellis died from a lethal amount of methamphetamine that was in his system as well as a heart condition, not from the officers’ actions.

Ellis’ death became a touchstone for racial justice demonstrators in the Pacific Northwest. But it also coincided with the first U.S. outbreak of COVID-19 at a nursing home in nearby Kirkland and did not garner the attention that the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis did nearly three months later.

The trial was the first under a 5-year-old state law designed to make it easier to prosecute police accused of wrongfully using deadly force.

The Ellis family settled a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Pierce County, which is home to Tacoma, for $4 million last year.

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