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Police union blasts political ‘witch hunt’ after officers charged in death of black man with lethal drug levels

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Three Tacoma, Washington police officers have been charged with homicide after the death of Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old black man in March 2020 despite the autopsy report showing a fatal amount of methamphetamine in his system in what the Tacoma police union has blasted as a “politically motivated witch hunt.”

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Thursday that Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins were charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter, and Officer Timothy Rankine was charged with first-degree manslaughter, KING5 reported.

If convicted, Burbank and Collins could face 10-18 years in prison, while Rankine could face 6.5-8.5 years in prison.

Ellis was walking home after purchasing snacks from a 7-Eleven last year when officers allegedly stopped him for trying to get in a car someone else was driving, according to court documents.

Ellis then approached the officers’ police cruiser, where they report that Ellis got aggressive, punching the window of their cruiser and attacking them as they got out of the car. The officers say they were forced to restrain him, put him in a chokehold and place a spit hood over his head. 

Officers who later responded to the scene told investigators that Burbank and Collins reported Ellis was “goin’ after a car” in the intersection when he attacked the patrol car and punched at the windows.

Videos taken by witnesses to the scene, however, apparently tell a different story in which the officers appear to be the aggressors. Ellis can be heard on the tapes saying “I can’t breathe, sir” after he was placed in the chokehold. 

The officer’s reply to Ellis can be heard on the tape: “Shut the (expletive) up, man.”

While the Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide attributed to lack of oxygen from being restrained, the autopsy report is contradictory at the very least. The report also added:

“It is unlikely that this death would have occurred due to physical restraint alone, without the contributing conditions. An argument could be made that the extremely high methamphetamine concentration should be considered the primary factor.”

It was reported that the landlord at the sober house where Ellis had been living said he was doing well prior to the incident, but toxicology proves otherwise. 

Authorities stated that Ellis had a history of addiction and mental illness, including schizophrenia. 

He also allegedly had a history of disobeying law enforcement. In September 2019, he was found naked after trying to rob a fast-food restaurant. He had to be subdued with a stun gun after allegedly charging law enforcement and refusing to remain on the ground. 

The Tacoma Police Union stood by their officers and called out the charges against them as “politically motivated.” 

“We are disappointed the facts were ignored in favor of what appears to be a politically motivated witch hunt,” a statement said. “An unbiased jury will not allow these fine public servants to be sacrificed at the altar of public sentiment.”

Kay Apfel

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