Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old black man from Tacoma, Washington, has been heard shouting, “I can’t breathe” in the audio of the police dispatcher released Friday. The recording was made shortly before Ellis’s death in police custody – in which he repeats the words of other black men who died in the arrests, such as George Floyd and Eric Garner.
Ellis was arrested March 3 in Tacoma; officers said they saw him “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles”, according to the police. Officers also said that Ellis confronted them violently at first, but Sara McDowell, a witness sitting in a vehicle behind the arresting officer’s car, told the New York Times the police first provoked Ellis. When Ellis walked to the police vehicle, an officer knocked him to the ground by opening the car door, she said. Videos shot by McDowell, released Friday, show that police officers beat Ellis while lying on the floor and tell him to put his hands on his back.
“Frankly, I was terrified of his life,” McDowell told the Times. “The way they attacked him didn’t make sense to me. I went home and was sick.”
An audio recording of a police report reveals that Ellis shouted, “I can’t breathe.” It is unclear what kind of restrictions the police used because they did not wear body cameras, the Times reported, but the police report filed on the arrest of state officials posted a “spit cap” – a mask intended to prevent an arrested person spits or caustic agents – at Ellis’s face. Minutes later, officers are asked to call for an ambulance.
Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, told KIRO the officers rolled Elllis over to him when he said he couldn’t breathe. He was still breathing when the doctors arrived, but died soon after, Troyer said.
A medical examiner’s report judged Ellis’ death as one murder on Wednesday after concluding that he died due to a lack of oxygen and physical limitations. The four agents involved in Ellis’ arrest – Christopher Burbank, Masyih Ford, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine – were put on administrative leave the same day, but none have been charged yet, something Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards has demanded.
“The officers who have committed this crime must be fired and prosecuted according to the rules of the law”, Woodards said Friday.
The mayor’s response sparked criticism from the Tacoma Police Union, which reprimanded her in a open statement Thursday for calling the officers “criminals” before the investigation was completed. And while they recognized George Floyd’s death as “revolting against the insignia,” they wrote that Ellis’s death was different.
“But understand it; Tacoma is not Minneapolis. The incident with Mr Ellis here in Tacoma was not the same as the incident with Mr Floyd, “the statement said.
Ellis’s family disagrees, however.
“Manny was taken from me, he was killed”, Marcia Carter, Manuel Ellis’ mother, said during a press conference on Thursday.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department is conducting an independent investigation into the incident, and Governor Jay Inslee said the state would then launch an investigation itself.
“We know that Manuel Ellis was one of the many, far too many black men who died while in US custody, including here in Washington State,” Inslee said. “Washingtonians deserve every assurance that investigations and allegations of police shootings and deaths of people in custody are dealt with urgently, independently and with commitment to justice.”
Recent protests have shed light on past police killings
Ellis’ murder is amid a wave of recorded violence against black men, including the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. It’s also because police brutality is being scrutinized for the police killings of Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, and others. These murders have sparked nationwide protests that have led to more police brutality – and even more attention to law enforcement killings. So much so that some in Ellis’ family claim that his murder may have been overlooked, if not for those protests.
“If it hadn’t been for me and Manny’s friends screaming loudly and George Floyd died, this would have been swept under the carpet,” said Monet Carter-Mixon, Ellis’ sister.
Ellis’s death is not the only police murder to receive nationwide attention during the demonstrations. In Las Cruces, New Mexico, the death of Antonio “Tony” Valenzuela was murdered by an officer ‘s handcuff, a medical investigator said Thursday – months after his death, according to the Las Cruces Sun News.
Valenzuela fled from the police on February 29; he was chased over an open warrant for parole. When the police caught up with him, an officer used a vascular neck support – one variant of the traditional chokehold in which pressure is put on the blood vessels of a person’s neck – to stop him. When the doctors arrived, Valenzuela was no longer responding and they pronounced him dead on the spot.
Following the publication of the autopsy report on Thursday, the officer who murdered Valenzuela – Christopher Smelser – was fired (he had been on administrative leave since the incident) and charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Momodou Lamin Sisay – a 39-year-old black man who was the son of a retired Gambian diplomat – was shot dead by police on May 29, just four days after George Floyd’s death. Agents attempted to coax Sisay’s car over a clear tag violation, but Sisay fled the scene, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). After a car chase, Sisay supposedly pointed a gun at the police and died after exchanging fire with a SWAT team.
Not all accounts from local agents state that Sisay fired a gun, the New York Times notes, and his father has contested the police’s claim that his son had a weapon – he has also criticized the agents for failing to resolve the situation peacefully.
Abdul Jaiteh, a lawyer for the Sisay family, has alleged that the man was murdered for being black.
“We have seen distances between suspects and police officers that could last more than five 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 as if they pull the trigger in a split second and will kill you. “
Gambians are shocked at Sisay’s death and are joining the growing number of international groups protesting the murder of black people by police.
“America has to admit there is an inherent racism problem in this country,” said Banka Manneh, a Gambian human rights activist in Atlanta, the Washington Post. After Sisay’s death, The Gambia called for a “transparent, credible and objective” investigation. And the country’s embassy in Washington has sent a team of investigators to collaborate with the GBI, which has opened an investigation into the case.