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The fatal arrest of Manuel Ellis, another black man who yelled “I can’t breathe,” explained

A medical examiner ruled Ellis’s death as a homicide caused by a lack of oxygen and physical restraint.

A diverse, masked crowd is packed onto a street under a cloudy sky. A black man with short braids stands at the front of the group, and raises a white sign with black letters and pink hearts reading, “#Justice 4 Manny.”
A June 3 vigil for Manuel Ellis, a black man killed by police in Tacoma, Washington, in March 2020.
Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

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 Elllis 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.”

Recent protests have been shedding a light on past police killings

Ellis’s killing comes amid a wave of recorded violence against black men, including the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. It comes, too, as police violence is under scrutiny due to the police killings of Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, and others. Those killings have sparked nationwide protests that have led to more police violence — and, to even more attention on killings by law enforcement. So much so, that some in Ellis’s family argue that his killing may have been overlooked if not for those protests.

“If it wasn’t for me and Manny’s friends screaming at the top of lungs and George Floyd dying, this would’ve been swept under the rug,” said Monet Carter-Mixon, Ellis’s sister.

Ellis’s death is not the only police killing gaining nationwide attention amid the demonstrations. In Las Cruces, New Mexico, the death of Antonio “Tony” Valenzuela was declared a homicide caused by an officer’s neck restraint, a medical examiner said on Thursday — months after his death, according to the Las Cruces Sun News.

Valenzuela was running from the police on February 29; he was being chased over an open warrant for a parole violation. When the police caught up to him, an officer used a vascular neck restraint — a variant of the traditional chokehold in which pressure is put on the arteries of a person’s neck — to hold him down. When medics arrived, Valenzuela was already unresponsive, and they declared him dead at the scene.

Following the release of the autopsy report on Thursday, the officer who killed Valenzuela — Christopher Smelser — was terminated (he had already been on administrative leave since the incident) and was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Momodou Lamin Sisay — a 39-year-old black man who was the son of a retired Gambian diplomat — was fatally shot by the police on May 29, just four days after the death of George Floyd. Officers tried to pull over Sisay’s car due to an apparent tag violation, but Sisay fled the scene, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). After a car chase, Sisay supposedly aimed a gun at police and died after exchanging fire with a SWAT team.

Not all accounts of officers on the scene make mention of Sisay firing a gun, the New York Times notes, and his father has disputed the police’s claim that his son had a weapon — he has also criticized the officers for failing to peacefully resolve the situation.

Abdul Jaiteh, a lawyer for Sisay’s family, has argued the man was killed because he was black.

“We’ve seen standoffs between suspects and police officers that could last for five-plus hours. They give you the benefit of the doubt,” Jaiteh said. “They do everything they can to convince you to surrender to save your life. Black people, we don’t get the same benefit. It’s like in a split second, they will pull the trigger and kill you.”

Gambians have been shocked by Sisay’s death and are joining the growing number of international groups that are protesting against police killings of black people.

“America needs to admit there is an inherent racism problem in this country,” Banka Manneh, a Gambian human rights activist in Atlanta, told the Washington Post. Following Sisay’s death, Gambia has called for a “transparent, credible and objective” investigation. And the country’s embassy in Washington has sent a team of investigators to work with the GBI, which has opened a probe into the case.