TACOMA, Wash. — A woman who witnessed the arrest of Manuel Ellis, a black man who died during the police encounter in Tacoma, has come forward to dispute the account provided by police, saying officers themselves had initiated a confrontation so violent that she yelled at them to “stop hitting him.”
Sara McDowell, who was in a car behind the officers, said Friday in an interview that she saw Ellis approach the police car late on the night of March 3 for what she initially thought was a friendly conversation. But that suddenly changed, she said, when an officer threw open the car door and knocked Ellis to the ground.
Police have provided a different account, saying that Ellis initiated the confrontation when he picked up a police officer and threw him to the ground, prompting officers to move in to restrain him.
McDowell, who recorded parts of the encounter on video, said that the violence of the police response had appeared to her to be unprovoked.
In brief video clips captured by McDowell, officers can be seen punching Ellis, 33, while he was on the ground. On one of the video clips, her voice can be heard calling out to them: “Stop. Oh, my God, stop hitting him. Just arrest him.”
“I was terrified for his life, honestly,” McDowell said. “The way that they attacked him didn’t make sense to me. I went home and was sick to my stomach.”
Ellis died in the minutes following his arrest after pleading, “I can’t breathe” — an eerie echo of some of the final words from other black men who have died in police custody, including Eric Garner and George Floyd.
McDowell said she did not realize until this week that Ellis had died in the aftermath of what she saw.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which has been investigating the death, had no immediate comment on McDowell’s account or on the two videos she posted of the arrest.
The county medical examiner’s office reported this week that Ellis died from respiratory arrest, hypoxia and physical restraint and categorized the death as a homicide. The report listed methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as contributing factors.
After McDowell’s videos were posted online Thursday, Tacoma’s mayor, Victoria Woodards, released a video message late Thursday night saying she was enraged by what she saw and was directing the city manager to fire all of the officers involved.
“The officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Woodards said.
While the videos show only two officers arresting Ellis, the Tacoma Police Department has identified four officers involved in the arrest: Christopher Burbank, 34; Matthew Collins, 37; Masyih Ford, 28; and Timothy Rankine, 31. Two of the officers are white, while one is black and one is Asian, according to the Police Department.
After the death, the officers had been placed on leave but then returned to work because no policy violations were found. They were placed on leave again this week.
On the night of his death, Ellis had been jubilant after playing drums at a church service, family and friends said. Marcia Carter, his mother, said he called her late that night as he returned home and told her that he was feeling good.
“I’m just coming from church, Mom, feeling real good,” Carter recalled him saying. “I’m ready to give my life to Christ. I want to live it right. I want to raise my kids. I want to be around in their lives. I want to do the right thing.”
Family members said he later went out to get a snack from a convenience store.
Detective Ed Troyer of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said earlier that before the arrest, Ellis was bothering people in vehicles, approached the officers and then violently attacked one of them when they stepped out of the vehicle, throwing one officer to the ground.
The first video captured by McDowell begins in the middle of the encounter, showing two officers taking Ellis to the ground on the road in front of some garbage cans. With Ellis on his back, one of the officers got down on his knees and began punching Ellis.
In a later clip, as McDowell drove past the scene, video showed the officers asking Ellis to put his hands behind his back. The officers appeared to have Ellis subdued and on his side.
Troyer said earlier this week that Ellis at one point called out, “I can’t breathe,” and the officers called for medical support and propped Ellis on his side. He has said that Ellis was breathing when medics arrived but that though personnel worked on him for more than half an hour, he did not survive.
The officers were not wearing body cameras, and Woodards said Thursday that she would push to get funding for body cameras.