justice for Manuel Ellis
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Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old black man from Tacoma, Washington, can be heard screaming, “I can’t breathe” in police dispatcher audio released Friday. The recording was made shortly before Ellis’s death in police custody — and in it, he echoes the words of other black men who were killed during their arrests, like George Floyd and Eric Garner.
Ellis was arrested in Tacoma on March 3; officers said they saw him “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles,” according to the police department. Officers also said Ellis violently confronted them first, but Sara McDowell, a witness who was in a vehicle behind the arresting officer’s car, told the New York Times the police first provoked Ellis. When Ellis walked up to the police vehicle, an officer knocked him to the ground by opening the car door, she said. Videos recorded by McDowell, released on Friday, show police officers punching Ellis as he lies on the ground and telling him to put his hands behind his back.
“I was terrified for his life, honestly,” McDowell told the Times. “The way that they attacked him didn’t make sense to me. I went home and was sick to my stomach.”
An audio recording of a police dispatch reveals Ellis screaming “I can’t breathe.” It’s unclear what kind of restraints the police used because they weren’t wearing body cameras, the Times reported, but the police report filed about the arrest states officers put a “spit hood” — a mask meant to keep an arrested person from spitting or biting officers — around Ellis’s face. Minutes later, the officers can be heard requesting an ambulance.
Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, told KIRO that the officers rolled Ellis to his side when he said he couldn’t breathe. He was still breathing when the medics arrived but died soon after, Troyer said.
A medical examiner’s report ruled Ellis’s death as a homicide on Wednesday after concluding that he had died from a lack of oxygen and physical restraint. The four officers involved in Ellis’s arrest — Christopher Burbank, Masyih Ford, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine — were placed on administrative leave that same day, but none have been charged yet, something Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards has demanded happen.
“The officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Woodards said Friday.
The mayor’s reaction has spurred criticism from the Tacoma police union, which rebuked her in an open statement Thursday for calling the officers “criminals” before the investigation was concluded. And while they acknowledged George Floyd’s death as “repugnant to the badge,” they wrote that Ellis’s death was different.
“But understand; Tacoma is not Minneapolis. The incident involving Mr. Ellis here in Tacoma was not the same as the incident involving Mr. Floyd,” the statement read.
Ellis’s family disagrees, however.
“Manny was taken from me, he was murdered,” Marcia Carter, Manuel Ellis’s mother, said during a Thursday press conference.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department is conducting an independent investigation on the incident, and Gov. Jay Inslee said the state would hold its own investigation afterward.
“We know that Manuel Ellis was one of far, far too many black men who died while in police custody in America, including here in Washington state,” Inslee said. “Washingtonians deserve every assurance that investigations and charging decisions related to police shootings and deaths of people in police custody are handled with urgency, independence and commitment to justice.”
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