Officer acquitted in 2020 death of Manuel Ellis resigns from new deputy job days after hiring

A former Tacoma police officer who was hired as a sheriff’s deputy in a neighboring county — despite his involvement in the violent fatal arrest of Manuel Ellis in 2020 — has resigned his new job after just two days.

Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders said in a written statement Wednesday that he failed to anticipate the community’s strong objections to the hiring of Deputy Christopher Burbank, which Sanders said included death threats to Burbank’s family. Burbank resigned effective immediately, Sanders said.

Manuel Ellis Officer Hired
Christopher “Shane” Burbank

Brian Hayes/The News Tribune via AP

Burbank and two other officers — Timothy Rankine and Matthew Collins — were each cleared of criminal charges by a Pierce County jury last December in the death of Ellis, an unarmed Black man who was shocked, beaten and hog-tied facedown on a sidewalk as he pleaded for breath.

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.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle is still investigating and could bring prosecutions for federal civil rights violations. A wrongful death lawsuit against Tacoma is pending.

“When I made the decision to hire Deputy Burbank, I failed to consider the greater community impact and instead made the decision based on business needs to remedy TCSO’s staffing crisis,” Sanders wrote. “Furthermore, I entirely misjudged community perception on the investigation and jury process that Deputy Burbank completed. I recognize the harm this has caused to marginalized communities, and I was wrong.”

Among those who criticized the hiring decision was Matthew Ericksen, an attorney for Ellis’ family, who said in an email Tuesday he would be scared if he lived in Thurston County. He noted that video evidence showed Burbank using his Taser on Ellis three times, including while another officer was choking him.

On Wednesday, Ericksen said the family was relieved Burbank had resigned. Between the outpouring of criticism over the hiring and the Washington Legislature’s decision this year to bar police from hog-tying suspects — a legal change made in response to Ellis’ death — the family has more faith that he won’t be forgotten, Ericksen said.

“It’s obvious that the public still remembers Manny and the horrific things that happened to him,” Ericksen said. “Manny’s death was 100% preventable, and the people of Washington know it.”

Like many law enforcement agencies nationwide, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office has struggled with understaffing; the Facebook post announcing the hire noted that Burbank would “provide immediate relief in our patrol division.”

The sheriff responded to criticism of the hire on Tuesday by saying Burbank had undergone a two-month background check, including a polygraph. Sanders stressed that his office has strived to improve its crisis response by incorporating mental health co-responders, adding that dashboard and body-worn cameras help provide transparency.

But by Wednesday it became clear that the hiring wasn’t going to work out, and Sanders apologized.

“Trust is gained in drops and lost in buckets,” he wrote. “For those who have lost confidence in me, or what we’re trying to accomplish at TCSO, I apologize for letting you down.”

Police Officers Manuel Ellis
A photo of Manny Ellis is displayed during the trial of three Tacoma police officers in the killing of Ellis at Pierce County Superior Court, Dec. 11, 2023, in Tacoma, Wash.

Brian Hayes / The News Tribune via AP

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 five-year-old state law designed to make it easier to prosecute police accused of wrongfully using deadly force.

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