TACOMA — On May 27 the Washington Attorney General filed felony charges against three Tacoma Police Department officers involved in the homicide of Manuel Ellis. The Attorney General charged Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins with Second-Degree Murder and Timothy Rankine with First-Degree Manslaughter. Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed the charges in Pierce County Superior Court.
If convicted, the standard sentencing range for Second-Degree Murder with no prior criminal history is 10 to 18 years in prison. The standard range for First-Degree Manslaughter with no prior criminal history is 6.5 to 8.5 years. The maximum sentence for both offenses is life in prison. Warrants have been issued for the three officers’ arrest.
This is the first time the Washington Attorney General’s Office has criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force, and just the second time homicide charges have been filed in Washington against law enforcement officers since Washingtonians adopted Initiative 940 in November 2018.
Mr. Ellis was killed on March 3, 2020, in Tacoma while being detained by Tacoma Police. The investigation was originally handled by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office. Months later, it was revealed that Pierce County Sheriff’s personnel were involved in Mr. Ellis’s detention. Subsequently, Gov. Jay Inslee directed the Washington State Patrol to investigate Manuel Ellis’ death and referred the charging decision to the Attorney General.
Attorney General Ferguson assembled a multidisciplinary team to assist in reviewing the investigation and making the charging decision. The review team included leaders in the office, assistant attorneys general from the Robert Keppel Criminal Justice and Wing Luke Civil Rights Divisions, a special assistant attorney general, and two retired judges, Judge Frank Cuthbertson and Judge Ronald Cox.
The Attorney General’s Office conducted additional investigation. The office interviewed new witnesses and identified and examined additional forensic evidence. The office retained an expert on police use of force. The Office also retained video and audio experts to synchronize the different audio and visual evidence captured by multiple sources, and produce a comprehensive transcript of the incident. All of this work was critical for the review team and the use of force expert. Consequently, a charging decision could not be made until its completion in May 2021.
Today’s charges are based on the evidence available at this time. The office’s investigation remains ongoing.
The Attorney General’s trial team will be led by Special Assistant Attorney General Patty Eakes and Assistant Attorney General Kent Liu.
Below, the statement of probable cause is included in its entirety. The statement includes evidence collected by the State Patrol and the Attorney General, including a timeline of the events leading up to Manuel Ellis’ death on March 3, 2020.
The Rules of Professional Conduct govern what a prosecutor in a criminal case may say publicly before trial. As the prosecutor in this criminal matter, the Attorney General’s Office and its representatives are prohibited from making public statements beyond the narrow scope allowed by the Rules of Professional Conduct. The Office will make every effort to be transparent with the public, while upholding its responsibilities as a criminal prosecutor.
Pierce County Council statement on charging decision in Manuel Ellis death
In response to today’s charging announcement by the Attorney General’s Office in the death investigation of Manuel Ellis, the Pierce County Council restates its commitment to see law and justice practiced equitably across the county.
Pierce County has a complex history that includes efforts to achieve greater justice, equality, and understanding among all residents, as well as times when we have fallen short of our values.
We will face challenges as they come and remain focused on the work—including listening and learning—to develop innovative policies, programs, and services providing every Pierce County resident a better future.
As outlined by the Council last summer in our call for a thorough review of the county’s law and justice systems, we value inclusivity and are committed to transparent, open dialogue to achieve those goals.
The Tacoma City Council’s Joint Statement on Today’s Attorney General’s Office Charging Decision
Today, our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of Manuel Ellis. They have had to endure the heartbreaking loss of their son, brother, father and friend. They are now working to process that the Attorney General’s Office has filed felony charges in Pierce County Superior Court, who will serve as the prosecutor in these cases, against three Tacoma Police Department officers involved in the death of Manuel Ellis. According to the Attorney General’s Office, this is the first time they have criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force, and just the second time homicide charges have been filed in Washington against law enforcement officers since Washingtonians adopted Initiative 940 in November 2018.
The length of time this investigation has taken has weighed heavily on us all, and we are grieved by what the family and loved ones of Manuel Ellis have been through this past year. What has come into sharp focus at this point, in the history of our city and our nation, is that the current culture of law enforcement needs to evolve. It must, if we are to meet the needs of community members that we, as policy makers, are sworn to serve.
Over the past year – in collaboration with our community members to include the Community Police Advisory Committee, the Heal the Heart Core Coordinating Team and countless others – the City initiated measures to prevent such tragedies from happening again in Tacoma. Together, we have equipped Tacoma police officers with body cameras, reworked Tacoma police policies to include implementation of “8 Can’t Wait” police reform strategies, and evaluated how the City deploys its resources to best transform public safety in a way that matches what our community envisions for a Tacoma that is its very best version of itself.
We passed Resolution 40622 in June 2020 to formally acknowledge that the City’s existing systems have not adequately served the needs of everyone in our community and, in particular, those of Black community members and other community members of color.
While the challenges of the past year have tested our community’s resolve, many people have continued to do the difficult and emotionally demanding work that is required to drive our beloved city forward, knowing that true reform does not come easily or quickly.
We are tremendously proud of our Tacoma community for their commitment and dedication to this issue, as well as those who serve with honor in our Tacoma Police Department, for having the courage to continue showing up over the past year and working hard to take a critical look at the City policies, practices and systems that were in place the night of Manuel Ellis’ death. This tragedy is not only a turning point for police reform in Tacoma, but across our state and nation. We, as a community, are resolute to enact changes in policing. No one should fear law enforcement or die in police custody.
We encourage every community member to remain engaged, challenge us with hard questions, and continue to hold us accountable as we work to achieve the lasting systemic change we all hope to see in Tacoma going forward. This is an important turning point for Tacoma. The City is grateful for the opportunity to work alongside Tacoma’s community members every step of the way.
More information about the City’s transformation efforts is available at cityoftacoma.org/transform.
A Statement From Mayor Victoria Woodards on Attorney General’s Office Charging Decision
TACOMA, Wash. — Today, the Attorney General’s Office followed through on its commitment to hold the facts of the Manuel Ellis investigation up to the standard of the laws in our state. We now know the deeply significant felony charges that will begin criminal proceedings against three City of Tacoma Police Officers.
I know that what I have to say today may raise more questions than answers. And I acknowledge that the information I have today is likely to feel deeply unsatisfying. We don’t have all the answers yet, but we will be sharing more as we learn it.
The charges being brought against three of the officers on the scene the night of Manuel Ellis’s death will no doubt be received with strong emotions across our community. For many, this news will be welcomed. For others, this news will be deeply troubling and difficult to bear. And for more still, the news may prompt any number of mixed emotions. It will no doubt intensify questions about the safety of Black lives here in the City of Tacoma.
The truth, no matter where you might stand on the Attorney General’s decision, is that Manuel Ellis was a son, a brother, a father, a churchgoer, and a friend to many. The loss of his life is tragic and heartbreaking. And losses of Black lives specifically impact our friends, families, neighbors of color – and me.
The Ellis family specifically requested an independent state investigation, and I want to thank the Washington State Patrol and the Attorney General’s Office for their efforts in fulfilling that request. Moreover, the City Council and I are grateful to Gov. Jay Inslee and Rep. Debra Entenman who heard us and worked to make independent, state-level investigations a right that is available to every Washington family impacted by officer-involved deaths. And I hope – in the next legislative session – we will add independent, state-level prosecutions as well.
I want to thank the community and especially the Ellis family for the extreme patience you all have demonstrated throughout the investigation of this case. I know it has taken much, much longer to get to this point than any of us expected or wanted, but I also believe it allowed for the thorough, independent review that Manuel Ellis’ family and the Tacoma community deserved.
Because the Attorney General’s Office has reached its decision as an independent agency, this matter will now enter our legal system. And – while it will require more of our patience – we will respect our legal system’s prosecution of the charges and proceeding in a manner that is just.
While the criminal process moves forward, Deputy Mayor Blocker, the City Council, and I will support City Manager Elizabeth Pauli and her staff’s effort to begin a separate administrative review to determine whether there is cause for disciplinary personnel action with any of the five officers involved. The Council and I will be holding the City Manager fully accountable for this review, including responsibility for reporting back to us and the community on a regular basis on how the work is progressing.
I have complete trust in the diligence that City Manager Pauli and Interim Police Chief Mike Ake will use in following the processes that are required to handle these personnel matters thoroughly and appropriately. We saw in Atlanta how an officer fired and charged with murder was reinstated, and I cannot imagine how that shook that community’s sense of safety. I don’t want that to happen in Tacoma.
In Tacoma, our administrative leaders who bear responsibility and authority for personnel decisions are going about this wisely to ensure the best outcomes for Tacoma, and they do so knowing the intense urgency for answers held by this community, the City Council, and me – both as a Black woman and as your Mayor.
What remains unequivocally true is this: Black lives matter. And we must act like they matter. The systems built up around policing have disparate outcomes across the nation, and the Council and I have heard the community’s demands for change here in Tacoma. While we await and eagerly anticipate the policing transformation team that we expect will be established as part of the community-led Heal the Heart initiative, we as a City have been and will continue to take action now to address this important need for change.
While we ask hard questions and look for areas where we can transform, at the same time valuable work continues in our police department as well. For those officers who work every day with integrity to protect and serve our community, I know the Manuel Ellis case and events across the nation have been heavy burdens for them and their families as well. Many members of the Tacoma Police Department have shared with me that they welcome the opportunity to improve policing in our city, and I welcome their partnership on the transformation we have already begun.
While there is so much yet to do, we are already seeing results from our transformation process. We have deployed body cameras to Tacoma police officers, and I have requested that staff look into using American Rescue Plan dollars to implement dash cams. We’ve adopted policies based on the national “8 Can’t Wait” campaign to include limiting the use of all chokeholds. And this year’s contract negotiations with our police unions will focus on addressing all barriers to transformation.
In March, we received an initial analysis and 64 recommendations from 21st Century Policing to help plan our next steps in police transformation. We are working with the Community Police Advisory Committee to move these recommendations forward. And this week, we received a study that will help determine what services we might divert from law enforcement to other kinds of responders. These foundational steps demonstrate our commitment to real change.
Beyond transformation of our policing system, the City Council and I have committed to a community-led systems transformation to ensure that all community members have equitable access to opportunities and services, an effort now known as the Heal the Heart of Tacoma initiative. The City Council and I appointed a core coordinating team in November to support this community-led work, and regular meetings have begun. In addition, the City Manager worked to develop the City’s first anti-racist budget, which we can amend as needed based on the community-led work to become an anti-racist Tacoma.
These are just initial steps. The City Council and I remain dedicated to supporting this work in whatever ways we can and listening to the community’s suggestions for additional change.
Let me end where I began. It has taken us a long time to get to this point in the investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis. I want to again thank everyone in our community for the patience they’ve shown as we waited for the thorough, independent investigation this case deserved. I ask for more of that patience now as we embark on the criminal phase of this case, and as we begin an administrative review of the facts. What we have learned and will learn from this investigation will help us move our transformation process forward. These charges are not an ending, they are part of the beginning we are embarking on to make Tacoma a better place for all our residents.
If we must go through these deeply difficult and heartbreaking moments as a community, then as your Mayor, I promise that these hard times will also result in meaningful change.
More information about the City’s transformation efforts is available at cityoftacoma.org/transform.