TACOMA — A police use-of-force expert called by defense attorneys in the trial of three Tacoma police officers accused of killing Manuel Ellis continued to testify Wednesday about police practices.
Chris Nielsen, a training sergeant for the Renton Police Department, told jurors about the types of force Tacoma officers can use on actively resistant suspects, and why he thought the defendant officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine were justified in subduing Ellis and continuing to press him to the ground on his stomach.
To show how officers are trained to conduct a high-risk handcuff, Mark Conrad, an attorney for Rankine, laid in front of the jury box face-down while Nielsen demonstrated the technique, scooping up Conrad’s wrists and pulling them together.
Prosecutors from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office objected to the demonstration, telling Judge Bryan Chushcoff the defense was putting on a “theater production” that wasn’t reproducing how Ellis was cuffed, but the judge allowed it.
Kneeling at Conrad’s side, Nielsen said the position allowed officers to put light or heavy pressure on a person’s back depending on their level of resistance.
Earlier in the morning, Nielsen described how the Tacoma Police Department’s use-of-force manual uses a graphic of staircase to conceptualize how necessary and reasonable uses of force escalate and de-escalate depending on a person’s level of compliance with police.
Ellis was actively resisting police when Rankine arrived at the scene as backup the night of March 3, 2020, Nielsen testified. Rankine arrived minutes after the initial struggle between Burbank, Collins and Ellis, and he later told investigators he put all of his weight into the middle of Ellis’ spine. Rankine’s partner, Masyih Ford, has testified for the defense that Ellis, who went by Manny, appeared to be overpowering Collins and Burbank, inching them into the street while the officers were on top of him.
Burbank, Collins and Rankine are charged with first-degree manslaughter for killing Ellis. Collins and Burbank also face charges of second-degree murder. The defendants have pleaded not guilty, are free on bail and remain on paid leave from the Tacoma Police Department.
Answering questions from one of Rankine’s attorneys, Anne Bremner, the police sergeant said even though Ellis was in handcuffs, he could still thrash his legs or spit. He said with that kind of behavior, Rankine didn’t have many options to restrain him, and putting pressure on Ellis’ back was one of the least intrusive uses of force.
Nielsen said it was “exceedingly rare” that putting pressure on someone’s back in the prone position would cause death. He also answered questions about what Rankine did to ensure Ellis’ safety, telling jurors that the officer monitored his breathing, put Ellis on his side so he could breathe better and checked the man’s pulse.
In Rankine’s statement to investigators, he said Ellis started thrashing once he was placed on his side, so he returned Ellis to the prone position with pressure on his back. Prosecutors have alleged that was a failure to tend to Ellis’ medical condition because he said he could not breathe, but Nielsen testified that it was the appropriate decision.
As more law enforcement arrived, Ellis’ handcuffs were tied to a hobble on his ankles, and a spit hood was placed over his head. The restraints weren’t removed until medical personnel from the Tacoma Fire Department arrived.
Nielsen’s testimony is a counter to testimony from prosecutors’ use-of-force expert, who told jurors that the way the officers subdued Ellis constituted excessive force, and that continuing to put pressure on the man’s back was inappropriate.
The defense expert was asked about one restraint option the state’s expert referred to, stacking Ellis’ legs together and sitting on his ankles rather than his upper body. Nielsen said not having any shoulder or hip control wouldn’t have stopped Ellis from thrashing on the ground, and he has said it wouldn’t have been appropriate for the officers to allow Ellis to continue thrashing because Ellis could hurt himself.
Prosecutors’ expert testified that once Ellis was handcuffed and hobbled, he posed no threat to officers. Nielsen brought jurors’ attention to the moments before Ellis was hobbled, telling them that a person who is only handcuffed can still injure or kill a police officer.
Ellis, 33, died after encountering Burbank and Collins in Tacoma’s South End. Collins struck the man in the head with elbows or fists and briefly placed him in a headlock before Burbank shocked Ellis with a Taser three times and the man was pressed to the ground on his stomach.
The officers had reportedly been suspicious of Ellis after seeing him try the door of a vehicle passing through the intersection of 96th Street and Ainsworth Avenue. Burbank and Collins later told investigators Ellis came up to their patrol car saying he was having a bad night and had warrants. Ellis was reportedly told to go to the sidewalk, but the officers said he became aggressive, threatened to punch Burbank and then slammed his fists into the officer’s window.
Burbank and Collins’ statements to investigators bear some inconsistencies on how exactly the struggle began from there — Collins claimed Ellis picked him up and threw him to the ground when he got out of their vehicle, which Burbank didn’t mention — but soon Ellis was beaten, pressed to the ground and handcuffed behind his back.
Ellis told police he couldn’t breathe at least five times as he was held to the ground, and a series of officers took turns putting pressure on his back, trial testimony has shown. His cause of death was found to be a form of oxygen deprivation from physical restraint by the former Pierce County medical examiner.
Four eyewitnesses called by prosecutors contradicted the officers’ version of events, characterizing the police as the aggressors. The witnesses told jurors that Ellis was walking down the sidewalk when he appeared to be called over to a patrol car and Burbank opened his door into Ellis, knocking him to the ground.They testified that Ellis did not fight back as police subdued him and brought him to the ground.
Lawyers for the officers have argued that police had to subdue Ellis because he was aggressive and resisted arrest. They have pointed out that after backup arrived, Burbank and Collins stepped away from the scene, and Rankine’s partner testified that Ellis was twice placed on his side so he could breathe better.
The defense’s explanation for Ellis’ death has been that the methamphetamine in his system and the man’s underlying health conditions, including an enlarged heart, caused him to die of heart failure.
Prosecutors drilled into a defense use-of-force expert during the afternoon on the dangers of leaving someone in the prone position.
Under a re-cross examination, Nielsen conceded that officers are trained to recognize the risks of holding someone in place on their stomach, not put unnecessary weight on the back and take steps to reduce the risk of harm to the person.
But Nielsen maintained that when Rankine arrived as backup for officers Burbank and Collins, he was justified in keeping Ellis prone and continuing to put pressure on his back.
During the morning’s testimony, Nielsen downplayed the danger of prone positioning, saying it was “exceedingly rare” for someone to die that way. In the afternoon, assistant attorneys general Lori Nicolavo bore down on his testimony, asking him if he had ever conducted studies on positional asphyxia. The police sergeant said he hadn’t.
“Have you stood there and watched someone die from positional asphyxia?” Nicolavo asked.
Nielsen said in 13 years of law enforcement work and in thousands of arrests, he’d never seen it happen. Nicolavo then asked Nielsen if he’d ever put both knees on a person’s back and lower neck while they were restrained on their stomach and saying they couldn’t breathe.
“I can’t recall that I have,” Nielsen said.
Nicolavo argued that a reasonable police officer should use the most effective and safest response that is proportional to the crime at hand. She suggested that with more than a dozen law enforcement officers on scene the night Ellis died, police could have taken the hobbles off Ellis and put him into a seated position rather than continue to keep him prone.
Nielsen said that wasn’t a feasible option because Ellis had been thrashing on the ground. Just because a seated position may have been safer for Ellis, he said, that doesn’t mean Rankine’s decision to keep the man prone was an inappropriate one.
The witness was also asked whether Ellis should have been considered by officers to be in medical distress, a key factor of the trial because it is the first to test a new police accountability law requiring police to render aid to subjects in their custody at the first opportunity, Initiative 940, which was adopted by the state Legislature in 2019.
Nicolavo asked if officers should consider someone to potentially be in medical distress if, like Ellis, the person is handcuffed and placed in hobbles, says they can’t breathe, goes completely quiet and has a thousand-yard stare. Nielsen said officers should attend to that and focus on it as a factor of the police contact.
Nielsen’s testimony concluded Wednesday afternoon, and he was excused, ending days of questioning.
Before court adjourned for the day, the defense called an investigator from the Washington State Patrol’s crime lab, Asa Louis to testify as a forensic toxicologist. His testimony was expected to continue Thursday morning.