Pierce County reaches $4M settlement with family of Black man killed in police custody

Francis Akhalbey March 23, 2022
Manuel Ellis was killed in police custody in March 2020 -- Photo via GoFundMe

Pierce County, Washington, has agreed to pay $4,010,000 to the family of Manuel Ellis to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. The 33-year-old Black man died in police custody after he was heard crying that he couldn’t breathe, CNN reported. The incident occurred on March 3, 2020.

The settlement agreement was approved by the Pierce County Council on Tuesday. “As always, litigation settlements are made with risk management principles in mind. We recognize that the family and friends of Manuel Ellis are grieving, and we hope this settlement will give them some measure of closure,” Adam Faber, a spokesperson for the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, said.

Following Ellis’ death, his family filed a lawsuit against the City of Tacoma, Pierce County, six Tacoma police officers, and two Pierce County sheriff’s deputies. The suit cited multiple allegations including assault, wrongful death, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. The suit also claimed Ellis’ constitutional rights were violated while he was in custody.

But per the terms of the settlement agreement, the county, as well as the two deputies, will no longer be named as defendants in the lawsuit. The claims against the other defendants will, however, move ahead.

“We are happy to have reached this agreement with the County. Nothing about the last 2 years has been easy for the Ellis family,” Matthew A. Ericksen Sr., an attorney representing Ellis’ mother and sister, said in a statement. “But at the end of the day I commend Pierce County for making the deliberate decision to seek a compromise rather than litigating this lawsuit to the nth degree.”

“By reaching this resolution Pierce County has established a foundation upon which the Ellis family and the community can begin the process of moving forward,” Ericksen added. “At the same time, we will continue to aggressively pursue our claims against the City of Tacoma.”

The fatal March 2020 encounter occurred after two Tacoma police officers stopped Ellis while he was walking home after purchasing snacks at a 7-Eleven store, the lawsuit states, per CNN. The Tacoma Police Department initially said the officers attempted taking Ellis into custody for allegedly “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles.” A physical struggle subsequently ensued, and Ellis was ultimately restrained, police said.

During the altercation, a police dispatch audio recorded Ellis saying, “I can’t breathe.” Those words were re-echoed by George Floyd before his death in police custody on May 25 that same year.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Ellis’ cause of death as hypoxia caused by physical restraint. The medical condition occurs when there isn’t “enough oxygen in the tissues to sustain bodily functions.”

Three Tacoma police officers are currently facing criminal charges in connection with Ellis’ death, CNN reported. Two of the officers, Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins, have been charged with second-degree murder. The third officer, Timothy Rankine, faces a first-degree manslaughter charge.

The accused officers, who are out on bail, have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Two other Tacoma officers who were investigated by the department for policy violations in connection to Ellis’ death were cleared in December. They subsequently resumed work.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 23, 2022


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