Officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins have been charged with second-degree murder and Timothy Rankine is charged with first-degree manslaughter, according to charging documents.
It is the first time Washington’s attorney general has criminally charged police officers for the unlawful use of deadly force, according to a statement from Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
And it’s the second time homicide charges have been filed in the state against law enforcement officers since Washingtonians adopted Initiative 940 in November 2018 — a measure making it easier to prosecute police officers for negligent shootings.
Ellis died when police in Tacoma, Washington, attempted to arrest him on March 3, 2020, for allegedly “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles.” Ellis had to be restrained after a physical altercation with officers, according to police.
Part of the arrest was caught on video by a driver. And Ellis could be heard crying, “I can’t breathe,” on police dispatch audio.
Officers called for medical assistance, but Ellis died at the scene.
The cause of death was respiratory arrest due to hypoxia caused by physical restraint, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office. Hypoxia is a condition in which the body is deprived of oxygen.
Ellis’ death led to protests in Tacoma.
Last June, Gov. Jay Inslee launched a new investigation into the death.
Inslee said at the time he ordered Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste to collect records from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, which had been conducting the investigation before the sheriff learned one of his deputies participated in the attempt to restrain Ellis — creating what the governor’s office called “an incurable conflict.”
In the audio recording, captured by the website Broadcastify, officers could be heard asking for hobbles — a kind of leg restraint — at around 11:26 p.m.
About 50 seconds later, as an officer relayed a message to the dispatcher. A male voice can be heard in the background exclaiming, “I can’t breathe.”
A few minutes later an officer can be heard requesting an ambulance.
The four police officers involved were placed on administrative leave.
After the death, two videos posted on social media showed Tacoma officers striking a Black man and pinning him down before he died in their custody. James Bible, attorney for the Ellis family, said at the time the man was Ellis.
Both videos of the alleged altercation are under a minute. They were posted on Twitter. One appeared to show officers striking Ellis as he laid on the ground. A second video appeared to show them holding Ellis to the ground and telling him to put his hands behind his back.
The videos were posted on the page of a local activist group, Tacoma Action Collective. It was unclear whether the video recordings were taken before or after Ellis was heard shouting “I can’t breathe” in the dispatcher audio.
After the video surfaced, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards demanded the four police officers be fired and prosecuted.
Two of the four officers in his case are White, one is Black and one is Asian, according to police.
The Tacoma Police Union at the time accused the mayor of passing judgment on the four officers “without any facts, without an investigation, without due process, and with less than a minute of short, blurry, partial Twitter videos in hand.”