Ex-Washington state police officer acquitted in Black man’s death files claims alleging defamation

By AP staff (AP)
TACOMA, Wash. May 21, 2024 11:48 p.m.

One of the Washington state police officers cleared of criminal charges in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis — a Black man who was shocked, beaten and held facedown on a sidewalk as he pleaded for breath — has filed multimillion-dollar claims against local and state officials alleging defamation.

Former Tacoma Police Department officer Timothy Rankine, who is Asian American, alleges in the tort claims seeking $47 million in damages that he was falsely accused of criminal and racist misconduct, KNKX reported Monday. Tort claims are generally precursors to lawsuits.

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Rankine testified during the trial last year that he pressed down on Ellis’ back on March 3, 2020, despite Ellis saying he couldn’t breathe. Rankine was acquitted of manslaughter but said in the claims filed with the city of Tacoma and the state Attorney General's Office that his reputation has been destroyed.

Rankine and his wife, Katherine Chinn, claim that Attorney General Bob Ferguson, his staff and contractors, as well as elected officials in Tacoma and city employees defamed Rankine by falsely accusing him of criminal misconduct and that those accusations were politically motivated, according to the claims, The News Tribune reported.

A spokesperson for the city of Tacoma said in an email Tuesday that the city doesn't comment on pending litigation.

The Attorney General’s Office told The News Tribune through a spokesperson that it didn’t have a comment on the claims and said they first go to the State Office of Risk Management, which can resolve the claim or assign it to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation and handling. Sixty days after the claims are submitted a lawsuit can be filed.

Rankine and his co-defendants each received $500,000 to leave the Tacoma Police Department earlier this year. Joan Mell, an attorney for Rankine, told KNKX that he wants to return to law enforcement but feels he's been blackballed. Mell didn't immediately return a message from The Associated Press seeking comment.

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

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Earlier this spring, a neighboring county hired Burbank as a patrol deputy but he resigned days later with the sheriff there saying he failed to anticipate the community’s strong objections.

Attorneys for the three had 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, 33, was walking home that night with doughnuts from a convenience store in Tacoma, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Seattle, 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 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.

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.

Ellis was already handcuffed facedown when Rankine arrived. Rankine knelt on his upper back.

Video showed Ellis addressing the officers as “sir” while telling them he couldn’t breathe. One officer is heard responding, “Shut the (expletive) up, man.”

Ellis’ death remains under review by the Department of Justice for civil rights violations. State officials are also investigating whether to revoke the acquitted officers’ certifications.

A federal lawsuit from Ellis’ family is also still pending against the city and the officers. The family previously settled for $4 million with Pierce County, which first investigated Ellis’ death.

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