Another Black Man Died in Police Custody in March While Saying ‘I Can't Breathe’

Police in Tacoma arrested Manuel Ellis, and an hour later he was dead.
tacoma police protest
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

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On March 3, Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old black man, died less than an hour after being handcuffed by police in Tacoma, Washington. On Wednesday night, a medical examiner’s report declared his death a homicide as a result of oxygen deprivation and the physical restraint that was used on him,

His last words, according to the report, were: “I can’t breathe.”


The revelation comes after more than a week of nationwide protests against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died when former officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe.

The report from the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office said that Ellis died from respiratory arrest, hypoxia, and physical restraint, listing methamphetamine intoxication and heart disease as a contributing factor.

An investigation into the death of Ellis is still on-going and all the details of what happened when he was arrested have not been released. The four policemen involved in his arrest — two white, one black, one Asian — were not wearing body cams.

On the night of March 3, two police officers encountered Ellis at an intersection in Tacoma when he was banging on the window of a car, Detective Ed Troyer told the New York Times.

According to Troyer, Ellis approached the officers and attacked one of them.

“He picked up the officer by his vest and slam-dunked him on the ground,” Troyer told the Tacoma News Tribune. “He never tried to run, he engaged with the officers and started a fight.”

At this point, the two officers, and two backup officers who had arrived on the scene, handcuffed Ellis.

“Mr. Ellis was physically restrained as he continued to be combative,” the Tacoma Police Department said in a statement Wednesday. Troyer said he didn’t know what kind of restraint was used but said he did not believe they used a chokehold or a knee on Ellis’ neck.


READ: All 4 officers who arrested George Floyd are getting charged

Troyer said that when Ellis told the officers he couldn’t breathe, they immediately rolled him onto his side and called for medical help. When the emergency services arrived, Ellis was still breathing, Troyer said.

Medics worked on Ellis for 40 minutes, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.

The final report into the incident is still pending, but the police department didn't find any violations of policy in the arrest, and the four officers involved have since returned to work.

Late on Wednesday evening, after the medical examiner’s report was published, hundreds of people gathered for a vigil at the intersection in Tacoma where Ellis died.

“The harshest of realities is George Floyd is right here in Tacoma, and his name is Manny,” attorney James Bible, who is representing Ellis’ family, told the Tacoma News Tribune.

Cover: A person leads chats with a megaphone as others block traffic as they lie face-down on the street at an intersection in Tacoma, Wash., for 8 minutes and 46 seconds during a protest Monday, June 1, 2020, against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)