TACOMA — Even if Manuel Ellis was posing no threat to police on the night he died, officers were justified in continually applying force, a police training expert testified Monday afternoon in the trial of three Tacoma police officers charged with Ellis’ death.
“It would be wholly inappropriate if Mr. Ellis continued to flail around in handcuffs and they just simply watched,” said Chris Nielsen, an expert witness for the officers’ defense.
He said the first two officers to encounter Ellis acted appropriately, a contradiction to testimony from a prosecution expert who said the officers used excessive force and their co-defendant recklessly bore down on him while he was handcuffed and hogtied.
Ellis, 33, died March 3, 2020, after repeatedly telling police he could not breathe while they struggled at a south Tacoma intersection. The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide caused by oxygen starvation from physical restraint.
Defense lawyers for the three officers on trial contend Ellis died from the extensive amount of methamphetamine in his system and a defective heart.
Officers Matthew Collins, 40, Christopher “Shane” Burbank, 38, and Timothy Rankine, 35, are charged with first-degree manslaughter, making their trial the first in 85 years in which three officers in Washington have been charged with an in-custody death. Collins and Burbank face an additional charge of second-degree murder. All three have pleaded not guilty, are free on bail, and remain employed on paid leave by the Tacoma Police Department.
Collins and Burbank reported seeing Ellis try to open the door of a car as it passed through an intersection. They told detectives Ellis acted aggressively toward them, triggering the fight that led to his death. Eyewitnesses, however, have testified that the officers were the aggressors and Ellis did nothing to provoke them.
Nielsen, a former King County prosecutor and current Renton police sergeant who serves as a trainer, conceded that eyewitness and security video footage does not show Ellis trying to hit or kick officers, as Collins and Burbank described.
However, Nielsen said the videos capture about a minute of the four to five minutes that Collins and Burbank were engaged with Ellis. “The fight was well underway by the time the video began,” Nielsen testified.
Nielsen conducted his analysis accepting the officers’ version of events, including Collins’ claim that Ellis violently attacked him — something nobody else, including Burbank, reported.
“There’s a whole host of things that I think happened that aren’t contained on the video,” Nielsen said. “That’s among them.”
He also accepted the officers’ claim that Ellis was suffering from “excited delirium,” a controversial term that major medical and psychiatric associations reject as an explanation for deaths. In law enforcement parlance, excited delirium refers to powerful and irrational subjects — usually on drugs — who are often impervious to pain and require extensive force to control.
“Excited delirium people are scary people,” Nielsen said, and it’s common that more than one officer is needed to subdue them.
Nielsen said Burbank’s and Collins’ use of force escalated because of Ellis’ actions — specifically the officers’ claim that Ellis threatened to punch Burbank and smacked his hand against their police cruiser, then resisted arrest. He said the officers’ actions — using a Taser on Ellis, punching him, placing him in a neck hold, and ultimately pressing on him while he lay prone — were reasonable.
Shown the same video clip that a prosecution expert described as Ellis raising his hands in surrender while Collins applied a neck hold and Burbank jolted him with a Taser, Nielsen said, “This is what resistance looks like.” He described Ellis’ actions throughout the video evidence as “extremely noncompliant.”
Rankine and his partner were the first to arrive to assist Burbank and Collins. According to Rankine’s statement to detectives, Rankine sat on Ellis’ back while he was in a prone restraint position, and twice moved Ellis onto his side so he could breathe easier. Nielsen said Rankine used reasonable force on Ellis, even though he heard Ellis gasp his last words, “I can’t breathe,” and remained atop him until medics took over.
“The level of force officer Rankine used was a relatively low level of force,” Nielsen said. “Placing someone in a prone position and placing transient weight on their back has a very low likelihood of a bad outcome.”
Prosecutors, in their cross-examination, tried to paint Nielsen as biased in favor of law enforcement. He acknowledged that in more than 90 use-of-force instances that he’s analyzed for court cases, he’s only found wrongdoing by an officer once.
Testimony is scheduled to resume Tuesday morning in Pierce County Superior Court.