Attorney says Tacoma police officers are victims of rush to judgment in the death of Manuel Ellis

TACOMA, Wash. — An attorney for two Tacoma police officers under investigation for the death of Manuel Ellis says he welcomes a state-led inquiry into how Ellis died.

“It’s an independent investigation. Fantastic,” said Michael Staropoli. “We not only welcome that, we embrace it.”

The Portland area attorney is representing officers Matthew Collins and Masyih Ford.

According to records of the incident, both were at the scene March 3 when the 33-year-old Ellis allegedly charged toward Collins and Officer Christopher Burbank, resulting in a fight to subdue Ellis and take him into custody.

Ford and Officer Timothy Rankine arrived to provide back up less than two minutes after the officers initially called for help as they struggled with Ellis. Staropoli said all four have been subjected to criticism of their actions before a full investigation is complete.

“And therefore, how can you determine what action is warranted or not warranted? So again, this just isn’t fair to the officers,” Staropoli said.

Moments after initial contact, Ellis was in handcuffs as officers tried to hobble his feet to prevent him from kicking. According to a medical examiner's report, a spit mask was placed over his head. At one point, a nearby home doorbell surveillance camera recorded Ellis telling the officers he was unable to breathe.

According to the Pierce County Medical Examiner's office, Ellis died “as a result of physical restraint with contributing conditions of methamphetamine intoxication and a dilated heart.” It added, “It is unlikely that this death would have occurred due to physical restraint alone without the contributing conditions. Furthermore, an argument could be made that the extremely high methamphetamine concentration should be considered the primary factor.”

“There’s physical restraint. Nobody’s denying that. Nobody’s disputing that,” said Staropoli. “There was forced used to get there because it was necessary, because Mr. Ellis was not compliant. But that isn’t what was the cause of his death.”

After a video of the incident surfaced, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said officers Collins, Burbank, Rankine and Ford should be fired and prosecuted.

“The reaction of the mayor, how can the public not get caught up with that kind of reaction when that’s what they’re being provided?” said Staropoli.

Staropoli says a similar 2019 incident in which Ellis was accused of getting up from the ground and charging toward Pierce County sheriff's deputies to fight with them needs to be factored into the current investigation. Ellis was facing criminal charges in that incident at the time of his death.

And he says calls to punish the four Tacoma officers for Ellis’ death are premature.

“We need to wait patiently, understandably with urgency, for the full picture, the full story to come out,” said Staropoli.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Governor Jay Inslee are deciding who will conduct the investigation after it was dispatch records revealed several Pierce County Sheriff’s deputies arrived on scene after the officers called for help. Their role in the incident has not been made public. The information led Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett to recuse her office and allow the state to assume sole jurisdiction.