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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tacoma officers acquitted in Manuel Ellis’ death to leave department

By Patrick Malone The Seattle Times

TACOMA — Three Tacoma police officers who were acquitted last month of killing Manuel Ellis reached settlements totaling $1.5 million to walk away from their jobs after an internal investigation largely cleared them of wrongdoing.

Officers Matthew Collins, Christopher Shane Burbank and Timothy Rankine had been on paid leave since June 2020. They’ve already collected about $1.5 million in pay, received multiple raises and accrued hundreds of hours of vacation time since they last worked, city payroll records show.

Collins, Burbank and Rankine will each receive $500,000 settlements to leave their employment with the city of Tacoma, according to settlement documents dated Jan. 11 that were released publicly on Tuesday. According to a city spokesperson, in addition to the settlement, they will be paid out for vacation time as well as 10 percent of their sick time. They’ll also keep their pensions.

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

The settlement details were released as Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore announced the outcome of an internal investigation that had been on hold for three-and-a-half years pending the criminal trial that ended with acquittals.

Other than a finding that Collins violated the department policy requiring officers to be courteous — by telling Ellis to “shut the (expletive) up” when Ellis said he couldn’t breathe — the three officers were cleared of violating rules and of using excessive force. Collins received a written reprimand.

Pauli expressed support for Moore for “his commitment and his ability to create a culture in the Tacoma Police Department that relies on positive community relationships, accountability and transparency.”

James Bible, an attorney representing Ellis’ family in a lawsuit against the city of Tacoma, reacted to the settlement with frustration.

“The day after Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the city of Tacoma and its government officials have clearly indicated that Black lives don’t matter to them,” Bible said.

“The Black community of Tacoma and all citizens of Tacoma should be absolutely disgusted and embarrassed by their local government’s failure to do anything about this situation. This is clear evidence that the (U.S.) Department of Justice needs to step in.”

Although Avery found the officers didn’t run afoul of Tacoma police policies, he criticized the department’s 2020 use-of-force policies that applied to his review.

Department policy at the time was silent on many of the tactics the officers used against Ellis, including a chokehold, knocking him down with a car door, hobbling him with a cord attaching his wrists to his ankles behind his back, and fitting him with a spit hood that the Pierce County medical examiner said contributed to his death.

“The use of force policy in place in March of 2020 failed to serve the best interests of the police department or the community,” Moore said in a written statement. “However, because it was policy at the time, it guided my decisions announced today.”

Moore said that policy has undergone intense revision over the past two years, and more than 30 policies have changed since Ellis’ death, with 10 of them nearly implemented.

Moore, who is Black, offered a conciliatory message to communities of color that have expressed frustration with the Tacoma Police Department. He issued a “personal and collective apology” for “the detrimental impact of policing” on people of color.

“My awareness of the historical context of policing includes acts of oppression, abuse, and dehumanization, all carried out under the color of law,” Moore said.

“Additionally, I recognize the atrocities spanning the last 30 years up to the present. I am committed to acknowledging and taking responsibility, adamantly refusing to condone or turn a blind eye to such heinous acts.”

The officers’ trial was the first courtroom test of Initiative 940, approved by voters in 2018 and the state legislature in 2019, which ramped up police accountability by requiring independent investigations when police kill or seriously injure someone on duty.

The new law removed the legal requirement for prosecutors to prove officers had malicious intent in using excessive force, making it easier to file criminal charges against police for their on-the-job actions. The charges against the Tacoma officers marked just the sixth time in the past century that law enforcement officers in Washington were charged for an on-duty death.

The next test of the law could come in March, when Auburn police officer Jeff Nelson is scheduled to stand trial in King County Superior Court for the 2019 shooting death of Jesse Sarey.

Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, died March 3, 2020, after telling officers at least five times that he couldn’t breathe while they struggled in a south Tacoma intersection, according to evidence presented at the trial, which ended just before Christmas. The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation from physical restraint.

At trial, lawyers for the officers took aim at that finding, suggesting instead that Ellis died from the high level of methamphetamine in his system and an enlarged heart. Defense lawyers said the officers’ actions were justified because Ellis fought them with what they described as “extraordinary strength.”

The fatal interaction began when Collins and Burbank say they saw Ellis reaching for the door handle of a car as it passed through an intersection. When they tried to question him, Collins and Burbank said Ellis turned aggressive and they responded with force. They were acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges.

Rankine, who was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter, arrived minutes after Collins and Burbanks. Rankine testified that he sat on Ellis because Ellis continued to squirm despite being handcuffed and sprawled out on his stomach. Rankine testified that he continued to place his weight across Ellis’ back, even after hearing Ellis gasp his last words: “I can’t breathe.”

After an initial two-week investigation, during which they were on paid leave, the officers were cleared to return to work. Former Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell placed them on paid leave again in the summer of 2020 after the homicide ruling was announced.

Other police departments have handled pay for suspended officers accused of crimes differently. In Minneapolis, Officer Derek Chauvin was fired before he went on trial and was subsequently convicted of killing George Floyd. In Aurora, Colorado, officers charged with the death of Elijah McClain were placed on leave, but their paychecks were held in a trust that was only available to them in the event of an acquittal.

When Moore replaced Ramsdell, he kept the status quo and let the charged officers remain employed and paid.

Collins, Burbank and Rankine are U.S. Army combat veterans whose time in the military brought them to the Tacoma area. Collins, a married father of four, joined the Tacoma police department in June 2015 after serving as president of his state police academy class. He was on the Tacoma police SWAT team and trained other officers on controlled tactics and firearms.

Burbank, who is married without children, spent five years at the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, police department, where he was the subject of 16 separate investigations, including nine for use of force and one complaint alleging racial profiling. He was exonerated in each instance. Burbank joined the Tacoma Police Department in December 2015 and was part of the collision investigation team.

“(Burbank) is clearly relieved and thought the chief made the right decision based on the investigation,” said Brett Purtzer, Burbank’s lawyer, noting the case had lingered for almost four years. “To finally be exonerated at the end of the day is something he’s happy for, but he wouldn’t want to see anybody else in this situation. It’s sad for everyone involved, but hopefully time for everyone to move on.”

Rankine is a newlywed without children. He joined the Tacoma Police Department in August 2018 after a stormy journey through the state police academy. His instructor notified Tacoma police leaders of a troubling incident in which Rankine was the lone recruit to fail a training exercise by shooting a suspect in the online simulation without justification, then lapsed into what a trainer called “mental condition black.”

Tacoma police followed through with hiring him. After The Seattle Times reported the incident, some members of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission questioned that decision.

Shortly after he was sent on patrol, Rankine and his partner are accused in a lawsuit of using excessive force on a man who said he couldn’t breathe as Rankine kneeled on his back while he lay prone — circumstances that were similar to his role in Ellis’ death.

In a statement, Rankine’s lawyers, Anne Bremner and Mark Conrad, said prosecutors from the Washington Attorney General’s Office misplaced blame on the officers. “(Rankine) did not take this decision lightly,” they said, referring to the severance agreement, “but the city of Tacoma could not assure his safety in his position.

“If we genuinely seek ‘Justice for Manny,’ our society must confront the real issues underlying his death — drug addiction and mental health — rather than unfairly placing blame on officers who were not responsible for the tragic outcome. Until that moment comes, we anticipate our police force will continue to lose good officers, like Officer Rankine, and our crime rates will continue to climb to new highs.”

Rankine’s partner Masyih Ford, who helped control Ellis’ legs, and officer Armando Farinas, who fitted Ellis with a spit hood that the medical examiner ruled contributed to Ellis’ death, were cleared of wrongdoing by an internal investigation in December 2021. Neither was charged. Both returned to work after stints on paid leave and remain employed by the department.

The morning after the officers were acquitted, Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, was outside the federal courthouse with a bullhorn picketing for federal action. Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Western Washington announced it would conduct an independent review of the Washington Attorney General’s case against the officers.

Ellis’ family settled a $4 million lawsuit against Pierce County, which failed to identify a conflict of interest in its initial investigation and mishandled Ellis’ death notification. A civil suit brought by Ellis’ family in federal court against the city of Tacoma and officers who helped restrain Ellis is pending.