TACOMA — As Timothy Rankine sat and pressed his knees on Manuel Ellis while he gasped his last words, “I can’t breathe,” the Tacoma police officer had a thought.
“The only response at that point that I could think of is ‘If you can talk to me, you can still breathe,’” Rankine said Tuesday as he testified in his own defense. Rankine promised to ease up if Ellis stopped wiggling.
Testifying in the trial of three Tacoma officers charged with killing Ellis in 2020, Rankine cried at times, presenting a contrast to his codefendant, Officer Matthew Collins, who spoke stoically over two days of testimony.
Describing the fatal struggle between Ellis and the officers, Rankine testified he arrived at the scene where his codefendants, Collins and Christopher “Shane” Burbank, were trying to control Ellis, who was handcuffed with his wrists behind his back and lying on his stomach with the officers bearing down on his back.
Ellis mimicked “a wiggle-worm,” Rankine testified. Ellis slammed his head on the ground, scooted his knees forward and lurched along the ground with the officers in tow, Rankine said.
“He was just dragging us along,” Rankine said. From that moment, Rankine said, his first concern was gaining control of Ellis until the resistance stopped.
Ellis, 33, died March 3, 2020, from what the Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled was a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation from physical restraint. Before he died, Ellis told police at least five times he couldn’t breathe while they applied force, including the pressure on his back while he was prone with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Collins, 40, his patrol partner Burbank, 38, and Rankine, 35, who responded to their call for backup, are charged with first-degree manslaughter. Collins and Burbank, who said they struggled with Ellis after seeing him try to open a door of a passing car, also are charged with second-degree murder.
All three officers have pleaded not guilty and are free on bail, posted by a sympathetic Tacoma business owner. They remain employed by the Tacoma Police Department on paid leave.
The trial marks just the sixth time in Washington State over the past century that police have been charged for an on-duty death. It’s the first courtroom test of Initiative 940, a voter-approved suite of police reforms that lowered legal barriers to charging police officers for on-duty offenses.
The prosecution’s case against Rankine differs from its case against Collins and Burbank, whose versions of events have been challenged by eyewitnesses and their cellphone videos that cast Collins and Burbank as the aggressors.
The most critical evidence against Rankine is his own statement to detectives in the days following Ellis’ death, in which he told the same story that he testified to on Tuesday: He sat on Ellis and didn’t immediately let up when Ellis said he couldn’t breathe.
Prosecutors allege that decision amounts to manslaughter. After Ellis’ death, the state Legislature imposed a “duty to intervene” on police, requiring them to step in when they see another officer acting outside the law.
Rankine testified that Ellis bucked Burbank off his back as Rankine and his partner, who was not charged, arrived. Rankine said he got on top of and eventually positioned his knees on Ellis’ back — near the base of his neck and lower back — and sat there to gain control of Ellis, who still periodically thrashed about.
“[Ellis] turned his head to the left and said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ in a very calm, everyday conversation-type of voice,” Rankine said. Seconds later, Ellis again said he couldn’t breathe. That’s when Rankine said he responded that Ellis could breathe just fine.
Ellis became still, so Rankine turned him on his side for ease of breathing. When he thrashed his legs once more, Rankine said he moved him onto his stomach again. When medics arrived and instructed officers to remove the handcuffs and the hobble linking Ellis’ ankles to his wrists behind his back, Rankine admitted he was reluctant to do so, for fear Ellis would fight police and medics.
Rankine said he relented, but that the delay was mere “seconds.” Under cross-examination, Rankine admitted that Ellis couldn’t have gotten free in that moment and didn’t need to be on his stomach.
During cross-examination of Rankine, special prosecutor Patty Eakes confronted him with two separate audio recordings where Ellis can be heard expressing that he can’t breathe.
In both instances, Rankine said he couldn’t hear it, prompting a volley of hushed chuckles from observers in the gallery, while some jurors quickly scribbled notes. Rankine later shifted his testimony to clarify that it didn’t sound the same to him on the night that Ellis died.
Rankine testified that he was trained only that the weight of multiple officers — not just one — could cause positional asphyxia to someone who’s in prone restraint, as Ellis was. Earlier in the trial, a national expert on police procedure, testifying for the prosecution, said the best practice for law enforcement when a subject is in a prone restraint is to minimize placing weight on their back due to the risk of asphyxiation.
In his testimony, Rankine portrayed himself as a caring cop deeply concerned about Ellis. He said he monitored Ellis’ pulse, twice moved Ellis to his side to make it easier for him to breathe and helped perform CPR on Ellis.
“The loss of life is tragic, no matter who it is,” Rankine testified. “This whole incident was tragic. I don’t think any of us sitting here thought he would die that night. On a personal level, it’s completely changed my life.”
Rankine’s path to becoming a Tacoma police officer was marred by a troubling incident at the state police academy in late 2018. During a training exercise — designed to test cadets’ understanding of the limits of appropriate use of force — Rankine was the lone recruit in his class of about 30 to shoot a suspect in an online simulation.
Rankine’s trainer described a mental break — “mental condition black” — and was so alarmed by Rankine’s response that he notified Tacoma police. The department followed through with hiring him anyway.
Jurors did not hear about the incident at the academy. Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff excluded it from the trial, ruling that it could prejudice jurors against Rankine.
A Seattle Times report exposed the incident, triggering an ongoing discussion at the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission about potentially expanded authority to remove recruits who show signs of being mentally unfit for police work. In response to The Times story, CJTC Commissioner Tim Reynon said, “We don’t want to see this happen again,” referring to Rankine’s circumstance, which began with troubling academy behavior and ended with a death on duty.
Jurors also didn’t hear about a lawsuit against Rankine and his patrol partner brought by a man they arrested less than three months before Ellis’ death. In that arrest, Rankine is recorded on cellphone video kneeling on the man’s back when he says he can’t breathe. That lawsuit, as well as a civil action by Ellis’ family against the city of Tacoma, are on hold until the trial is resolved.
Testimony is scheduled to resume this morning in Pierce County Superior Court with Rankine still on the witness stand.