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Black man’s death in police custody in Washington ruled homicide, mayor calls for justice

Click to play video: 'Manuel Ellis death: Tacoma mayor calls for officers to be fired'
Manuel Ellis death: Tacoma mayor calls for officers to be fired
WATCH: Manuel Ellis death --Tacoma mayor calls for officers to be fired – Jun 5, 2020

Three months after the death of a Black man in police custody — in an incident similar to the death of George Floyd — the mayor of Tacoma, Wash., is calling for the officers involved to be fired and prosecuted “to the full extent of the law.”

Mayor Victoria Woodards’ impassioned late-night press conference Thursday night came shortly after video emerged appearing to show Manuel Ellis being restrained on the ground by police on March 3.

On Tuesday, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office released its autopsy report for Ellis, which determined he died of respiratory arrest from hypoxia due to physical restraint. It also ruled the 33-year-old’s death as a homicide.

According to KING, an NBC News affiliate in Seattle, Ellis can be heard on a police radio recording saying “I can’t breathe” during the incident.

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Woodards said after reading the report, watching the pair of videos released on social media and seeing Ellis’s family plead for justice on Thursday, she was “even more enraged and angered and disappointed.”

“In this moment, at this time, based on the information I know today, the officers’ actions we saw on this video tonight only confirm that Manuel Ellis’s death was a homicide,” she said.

“I don’t get to take this skin colour off every day,” said Woodards, her voice rising. “While I am mayor, I am still Black, I am still treated as an African-American woman, I am still looked at as an African-American woman, and my life could be taken. And today, it stops in Tacoma.”

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Woodards called on the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office to conduct a full investigation of the actions of all four officers involved in Ellis’s detainment. She also said she was instructing the city manager to allocate funding for police body cameras.

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Tacoma police Chief Don Ramsdell released a statement Thursday night saying an investigation by the sheriff was already underway, and all four officers involved have been placed on administrative leave. He also offered condolences to Ellis’s family.

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“We have fully co-operated and have been transparent with the current ongoing, independent investigation and will continue to do so for any additional investigations,” he said.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday called for additional witnesses and information related to the case, which it said has been ongoing for three months.

The Seattle Times and CBS News said the officers — identified by police as Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, Masyih Ford and Timothy Rankine — were placed on administrative leave after the incident but then returned to duty. They have now been placed on leave for a second time, according to Ramsdell.

Burbank and Collins have been identified as white, while Ford is a Black officer and Rankine is Asian.

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The videos released Thursday are taken from inside a vehicle stopped behind a police cruiser. A clash between at least two officers and a man, identified as Ellis, can be seen in the distance near the cruiser, with the man and officers eventually falling to the ground. An officer can be seen crouched down for the rest of the video, which cuts away several times.

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In a second video, the vehicle drives past the scene, and the officer on top of the man, who is white, is heard saying repeatedly: “Put your hands behind your back.” The man’s head moves slightly before the vehicle drives away.

WARNING: The videos below contain graphic content. Discretion is advised.

The circumstances of Ellis’s death, including his reported uttering of “I can’t breathe,” are similar to those of Floyd, a Black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. A white police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while restraining him on the ground. That officer, Derek Chauvin, has now been charged with second-degree murder, while three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.

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The death prompted protests that have spread across the U.S. and around the world calling for the officers’ arrests and widespread policing reforms related to the treatment of Black people and other racialized groups.

According to the News Tribune, Ellis had played drums at a church revival the night he died and had called his mother, brother and sister individually to share how happy the performance made him. He hung out at the church afterwards, then left to grab a snack from a convenience store, friends said.

Police, however, said Ellis had approached and repeatedly struck the officers’ patrol car and showed symptoms consistent with “excited delirium” — a condition that sometimes includes attempts at violence and unexpected strength.

The condition, which can be caused by drug use but also through interactions with police, was not mentioned in Ellis’ autopsy report, although it did list methamphetamine intoxication as a contributing factor in his death.

Ellis “immediately attacked” the officers after they exited their vehicle, police said, alleging they struggled with each other as backup arrived.

After handcuffing Ellis and calling firefighters to evaluate his condition, officers allegedly continued restraining him on the ground. Firefighters arrived eight minutes later, but within a minute of their arrival, police said Ellis lost consciousness and stopped breathing. Despite attempts at CPR, he was pronounced dead at the scene.

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At a press conference Thursday, Ellis’s family accused both the police and sheriff’s departments of trying to “hide information” and “mislead the public” about his death and questioned why it took the release of the video to finally be heard.

“We saw what happened with George Floyd. But I’m thinking of all the brothers and sisters who we were not around to see” get killed, said Gerald Hankerson, regional president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“If it wasn’t for me and (Ellis’s) friend screaming at the top of our lungs and George Floyd dying, this would have gotten brushed under the rug,” Ellis’s sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, said.

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