TACOMA, Wash. — “I can’t breathe.”
Like Eric Garner and George Floyd before him, Tacoma resident Manuel Ellis could be heard uttering those words to city police officers as they held him down on the ground March 3 during an arrest.
The handcuffed Ellis, 33, died in police custody.
The Pierce County medical examiner on Wednesday said Ellis died of hypoxia after being physically restrained by the officers, according to KIRO in Seattle. His heart was also enlarged, a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, and he had methamphetamine in his system.
The heart condition and drugs were contributing factors in his death, but the primary cause was respiratory arrest from the hypoxia, The Washington Post reported.
The medical examiner has ruled Ellis’ death a homicide.
In the background of a 911 call from the scene, Ellis can be heard telling the officers he couldn’t breathe, KIRO reported.
“We actually hear his last words, ‘I can’t breathe.’ We actually hear somebody else saying, ‘Hobble him,’" Ellis family attorney James Bible said, according to the news station.
In a family news conference Thursday, Ellis’ sister, Monet Carter-Mixon, accused law enforcement officials of wanting to cover up a murder.
“Every single officer involved needs to be in a jumpsuit,” Carter-Mixon said.
A vigil was held Wednesday night in Ellis’ honor.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office is conducting an independent investigation into Ellis’ killing. Detective Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the agency, told The New York Times the investigative package is being prepared for a review by prosecutors.
“We expect to present it to the prosecutor at the end of this week or early next week,” Troyer said.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards on Thursday called for the firing and prosecution of the police officers involved in Ellis’ death. A total of four officers have been placed on administrative leave in the case.
Woodards said the actions she saw on the video only confirm the medical examiner’s ruling that Ellis was the victim of a homicide.
“The officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Woodards said at a news conference late Thursday night. “I am demanding tonight that the Pierce County sheriff review and confirm every action taken by each officer. I demand that the sheriff provide details of the actions of each officer on the scene, and I am then directing the city manager to fire each officer involved.”
Troyer told the Times that Ellis appeared to be in distress and was banging on the window of another vehicle. The officers said he approached them and threw one of the officers to the ground as he got out of his vehicle.
A 36-second cellphone video, filmed by a woman driving by the scene and released by the Tacoma Action Collective, shows two police officers knock Ellis onto the ground near an intersection.
Watch the video of Manuel Ellis being beaten below. Warning: The footage contains graphic images and explicit language.
One of the officers then appears to get on top of Ellis and punch him several times.
“Hey, stop!” the female driver screams. “Oh my God, stop hitting him! Just arrest him!”
In a second, shorter video, the woman drives around the officers’ patrol SUV and stops to continue filming. Ellis no longer appears to be struggling and one officer holds a stun gun in his hand.
“Put your hands behind your back,” one of the officers is heard telling Ellis.
Both officers are on top of Ellis at that point in the footage.
Watch the second video of Ellis’ arrest below.
Troyer told the Times that the officers immediately rolled Ellis onto his side when he complained about his breathing.
“The main reason why he was restrained was so he wouldn’t hurt himself or them,” Troyer said. “As soon as he said he couldn’t breathe, they requested medical aid.”
Woodards said she became “enraged and angered and disappointed” while watching the cellphone footage.
“(Ellis’ family) asked, ‘Why does it always take a video for the public to believe when a black person’s life is taken unjustly?’” the mayor said. “As an African American woman, I didn’t need a video to believe.”
She said she doesn’t “get to take this skin color off every day.”
“I don’t get to come out a different person. And while I am mayor, I am still black,” Woodards said. “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.
“Today, it stops in Tacoma.”
Watch Mayor Victoria Woodards speak below about Manuel Ellis’ death.
Aside from instructing the city manager to fire the officers involved, Woodards also ordered that the appropriate funds be allocated immediately to equip city police officers with body-worn cameras.
She pointed to statements that the Ellis family made earlier in the day regarding the necessity of video footage for people to accept the systemic racism that affects black lives every day.
“As the family mentioned to us this morning, it does take a video for so many people to believe the truth about systemic racism and its violent impact on black lives, on my life,” Woodards said. “But in order to ensure that every family, that every single family, gets the justice that they deserve, I am also directing the city manager to move forward with allocating funding for body cams immediately.
“We have waited way too long, and we have heard way too many excuses. It stops tonight and we move forward.”
Details of Ellis’ last moments come after more than a week of violent protests across the U.S. following the May 25 death of Floyd, who was accused of forgery when four Minneapolis police officers took him into custody.
Cellphone video from a passerby shows the officers, who have since been fired and charged in his death, holding the handcuffed Floyd down on the street while one of the men kneels on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, including for more than two minutes after Floyd has become unresponsive.
Former Officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death. The other three former officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas K. Lane and Tou Thao, are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
An emotional Woodards on Wednesday called Ellis’ death a tragedy.
“I cannot imagine the pain that continues with the Ellis family’s loss,” the mayor said. “But I do know that our community wants both answers and justice.”
Woodards said amid the nationwide protests in the death of Floyd, as well as other recent high-profile deaths of unarmed black people, she is devastated to have Ellis’ name added to the national conversation about police brutality.
She acknowledged that authorities do not yet have all the answers in the homicide and urged the public’s patience as Pierce County Sheriff’s Office detectives investigate the case. She also pledged to be transparent as the investigation moves forward.
“As we learn more, you will know more,” she said.
On Thursday, she reiterated her apology to the family on behalf on the city and vowed to do everything in her power as mayor to bring them justice.
Brian Giordano, a friend of Ellis’, told the Times it would have been out of character for Ellis to become violent with police officers as described by authorities. Ellis, an admitted drug addict, was living in a “clean-and-sober” house at the time of his death and was trying to get his life back on track.
“He was always uplifting,” Giordano said. “He was always on the up-and-up about taking care of people.”
Ellis’ mother, Marcia Carter, said despite her son’s struggles, he had faith in God.
“‘I want to do the right thing. I want to do the right thing,’ is what my son said,” Carter said, according to KIRO. “He loved the Lord. He played the drums four nights a week at the church.”
He played drums at the church the night he died.
Carter-Mixon told the Times her brother was not only a father to his own children but was also a father figure to her sons, coaching them on how to stay safe as a black man in America.
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