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Before the Death of Manuel Ellis, a Witness Told Police: ‘Stop Hitting Him’


Posted on 05 Jun 2020 

A woman who witnessed the arrest of Manuel Ellis, a black man in Tacoma, Wash., called on police officers to “stop hitting him” after they wrestled Mr. Ellis to the ground, according to a video of the arrest.

Mr. Ellis died in the minutes following his arrest in March after pleading, “I can’t breathe” — an eerie echo of some of the final words from other black men who have died in police custody, including Eric Garner and George Floyd.

The woman captured video clips showing brief portions of the arrest of Mr. Ellis, 33, including punches that officers threw while he was on the ground. She was in her car and had pulled up right behind the police vehicle on the southern edge of Tacoma late on the night of March 3.

The woman came forward with the video only recently, having not realized for weeks that Mr. Ellis died that night, according to the Ellis family’s lawyer, James Bible.

After the videos were posted online, Tacoma’s mayor, Victoria Woodards, released a video message late Wednesday night saying she was enraged by what she saw and was directing the city manager to fire each officer involved.

“The officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Ms. Woodards said.

While the video only shows two officers arresting Mr. Ellis, the Tacoma Police Department has identified four officers involved in the arrest: Christopher Burbank, 34; Matthew Collins, 37; Masyih Ford, 28; and Timothy Rankine, 31. Two of the officers are white, while one is black and one is Asian, according to the police department.

After the death, the officers had been placed on leave but then returned to work because no policy violations were found. They were placed on leave again earlier this week.

On the night of his death, Mr. Ellis had been jubilant after playing drums at a church service, family and friends said. Marcia Carter, his mother, said he called her late that night as he returned home and told her that he was feeling good.

“I’m just coming from church, Mom, feeling real good,” Ms. Carter recalled him saying. “I’m ready to give my life to Christ. I want to live it right. I want to raise my kids. I want to be around in their lives. I want to do the right thing.”

Family members said he later went out to get a snack from a convenience store.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has been handling the investigation, and Detective Ed Troyer has said that before the arrest, Mr. Ellis was bothering people in vehicles, approached the officers and then violently attacked one of them when they stepped out of the vehicle, throwing one officer to the ground.

The first video captured by the witness begins in the middle of the encounter, showing two officers taking Mr. Ellis to the ground on the road in front of some garbage cans. With Mr. Ellis on his back, one of the officers got down on his knees and began punching Mr. Ellis.

“Stop. Oh my god, stop hitting him. Just arrest him,” the witness called out in the video.

In a later clip, as she drove past the scene, video showed the officers asking Mr. Ellis to put his hands behind his back. The officers appeared to have Mr. Ellis subdued and on his side.

Detective Troyer said Mr. Ellis at one point called out, “I can’t breathe,” and the officers called for medical support and propped Mr. Ellis on his side. He has said that Mr. Ellis was breathing when medics arrived but that though personnel worked on him for more than half an hour he did not survive.

The woman who shot the video did not return a message seeking comment.

The medical examiner’s office concluded that Mr. Ellis died from respiratory arrest, hypoxia and physical restraint. The report listed methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as contributing factors.

The officers were not wearing body cameras, and Ms. Woodards said Thursday night that she would push to get funding for them.


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