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News / Northwest

Will Tacoma cops acquitted in Manny Ellis case be fired? Here’s when decision will come

By Peter Talbot, , The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) (TNS),
Published: January 11, 2024, 11:26am

Jan. 11—Tacoma Police Department Chief Avery Moore will announce Tuesday whether three Tacoma police officers acquitted last month of murder or manslaughter charges in the death of Manuel Ellis will face any disciplinary action.

City Manager Elizabeth Pauli and Moore acknowledged in a joint statement issued Wednesday afternoon that the date of the announcement means the city is not delivering answers to Tacomans by the deadline the city had set for itself, 14 business days from the day of the verdict, which would be Thursday, Jan. 11.

“We share your desire for swift resolution,” Pauli and Moore said in the written statement. “These past weeks have been filled with questions, and with good reason. This incident has touched many lives, and the community rightfully deserves answers.”

A TPD spokesperson told The News Tribune in a brief phone call that she was unsure whether Moore’s decision would be announced through a news release or an in-person news conference.

Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine were found not guilty Dec. 21 of all charges in the March 3, 2020, death of Ellis following a 10-week trial prosecuted by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. Prosecutors had alleged that Collins and Burbank unlawfully contacted Ellis at 96th Street and Ainsworth Avenue, and all three officers used excessive force and tactics that ran afoul of their police training, causing Ellis’ death.

Ellis was struck in the head repeatedly, slammed to the ground, shocked with a Taser three times and pressed to the pavement on his stomach while officers knelt or sat on him, evidence presented at trial showed. Rankine responded as backup and later told detectives investigating Ellis’ death that he put all of his weight on the man. As more law enforcement arrived, Ellis arms and legs were tied behind his back in a hogtie position, and a spit hood was placed over his head.

Ellis, 33, told police at least five times that he couldn’t breathe, according to trial evidence, and the former Pierce County medical examiner later determined he died of a form of oxygen deprivation caused by physical restraint.

Defense attorneys for the officers argued none of the officers’ actions had killed Ellis, and that they had to continue to restrain him even after he said he could not breathe because he continued to resist arrest. As for his cause of death, they focused on the high concentration of methamphetamine in his system and his underlying health condition of an enlarged heart, arguing that he died of an overdose and heart failure.

A jury of seven men and five women agreed with the defense, finding Collins and Burbank not guilty of second-degree murder or first-degree manslaughter, and acquitting Rankine of manslaughter.

Pauli and Moore said they know the community wants immediate information but that they are bound to uphold due process. The two said the Tacoma Police Department’s internal investigation is complete, and Burbank, Collins and Rankine have been notified that they have a right to meet with Moore on Friday before any final decision is made on discipline. That discipline could include termination.

“We recognize this waiting period adds another layer of frustration to an already difficult situation,” Pauli and Moore said. “We are moving as quickly as possible while preserving the integrity of the process. Rest assured, transparency remains our highest priority and we will share every detail allowed by law on Tuesday, January 16.”

By law, Moore must hold pre-disciplinary hearings, which require a 72-hour notice, if any discipline enacted would have financial implications for the officer or officers on the receiving end, according to previous reporting from The News Tribune.

Collins, Burbank and Rankine have remained employed on paid leave since they were charged and arrested in May 2021. Collins and Burbank had been TPD officers for about five years prior to Ellis’ death, and Rankine had less than two years of experience at the police department.

In December 2021, two officers involved in Ellis’ death, but not charged with a crime, were exonerated of violating any department policies following a months-long internal investigation.