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Officer acquitted in 2020 death of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma is hired by neighboring sheriff’s office

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SEATTLE (AP) — One of the three Tacoma police officers cleared of criminal charges in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis — a Black man who was shocked, beaten and restrained facedown on a sidewalk as he pleaded for breath — has been hired by a neighboring sheriff’s office.

The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, based in Olympia, Washington, announced on its Facebook page Monday that it had hired former Tacoma officer Christopher Burbank as a patrol deputy.

Burbank and two other officers — Timothy Rankine and Matthew Collins — were each cleared of criminal charges by a Pierce County jury last December. Rankine was charged with manslaughter, while Collins and Burbank were charged with manslaughter and second-degree murder.

Their attorneys argued that Ellis died from a lethal amount of methamphetamine as well as a heart condition, not from the officers’ actions. The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide and said it was caused by a lack of oxygen during the physical restraint.

Ellis’ family was shocked and saddened by the hire, said attorney Matthew Ericksen. The U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle is still reviewing the case, which could bring prosecutions for federal civil rights violations, and a wrongful death lawsuit is pending.

“There is strong evidence in the Ellis case, including but not limited to the cell phone videos, that should be very concerning to any reasonable person,” Ericksen said in an email Tuesday. “It is not in dispute that Mr. Burbank tased an unarmed person 3 times. Mr. Burbank even used his taser while Manny was being choked out by another officer.”

The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Like many law enforcement agencies around the country, it has struggled with understaffing; the Facebook post announcing the hire noted that Burbank would “provide immediate relief in our patrol division.”

Ellis, 33, was walking home with doughnuts from a 7-Eleven in Tacoma, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Seattle, on March 3, 2020, when he passed a patrol car stopped at a red light, with Collins and Burbank inside.

The officers claimed they saw Ellis try to open the door of a passing car at the intersection and he became aggressive when they tried to question him about it. Collins testified that Ellis demonstrated “superhuman strength” by lifting Collins off the ground and throwing him through the air.

But three witnesses testified they saw no such thing. After what appeared to be a brief conversation between Ellis and the officers — who are both white — Burbank, in the passenger seat, threw open his door, knocking Ellis down, they said. Rankine, who arrived after Ellis was already handcuffed face-down, knelt on his upper back.

The witnesses — one of whom yelled for the officers to stop attacking Ellis — and a doorbell surveillance camera captured video of parts of the encounter. The video showed Ellis with his hands up in a surrender position as Burbank shot a Taser at his chest and Collins wrapped an arm around his neck from behind.

His death came nearly three months before George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police would spark an international outcry against police brutality.

The Tacoma Police Department found that the officers did not violate its use-of-force policy as it was then written — it had been subsequently updated — and the three officers were each paid $500,000 to resign.

Pierce County, which is home to Tacoma, settled its portion of a federal wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family for $4 million. The case is still pending against the city.

The trial was the first under a 5-year-old state law designed to make it easier to prosecute police accused of wrongfully using deadly force.

By GENE JOHNSON
Associated Press

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