Attorney: Black man who died in Tacoma police custody heard screaming ‘I can’t breathe’ on dispatcher audio

Nation/World

A black man who died in police custody in Tacoma, Washington, could be heard on dispatcher audio screaming “I can’t breathe,” according to an attorney for the man’s family.

Tacoma police tried to arrest Manuel Ellis the night of March 3 after officers saw him “trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles,” according to a news release from the city’s police department.

Officers said there was a physical altercation and Ellis had to be physically restrained because he was “combative,” the release said. Police said the officers called for medical aid when they saw he needed help, but Ellis died at the scene.

The audio recording, captured by the website Broadcastify, provides additional details on the deadly incident. Officers can be heard asking for hobbles — a kind of leg restraint — at around 11:26 p.m. About 50 seconds later, as an officer relays a message to the dispatcher, a male voice can be heard in the background exclaiming, “I can’t breathe.”

A few minutes later an officer can be heard requesting an ambulance.

“They’re absolutely positive that that is their brother and their son,” James Bible, the family’s attorney, told CNN.

“This family has listened to it repeatedly over and over again in heartbreaking fashion,” he added.

CNN has reached out to the spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s office, the agency investigating this matter, but did not immediately get a reply. Sheriff’s investigators confirmed the recording to CNN affiliate KIRO and said there is also a video of the incident logged into evidence.

“When he said he couldn’t breathe they rolled him on the side and he was breathing and he was talking,” Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, told KIRO.

The four police officers have not been charged but they have been placed on administrative leave.

Two videos posted

In another development Friday, two videos posted on social media appear to show Tacoma officers striking a black man and pinning him down before he died in their custody. Bible said the man is Ellis.

Both of the videos of the alleged altercation are under a minute and were posted on Twitter. One video appears to show officers striking Ellis as he lies on the ground. A second video appears to show them holding Ellis to the ground and telling him to put his hands behind his back.

The videos were posted on the page of a local activist group, Tacoma Action Collective, and were shot by Sara McDowell, a local resident who witnessed the arrest.

It’s unclear whether the video recordings were taken before or after the “I can’t breathe” shout was transmitted across the dispatcher audio.

After the videos were posted Friday, Troyer said the sheriff’s department was investigating this matter and wouldn’t comment.

“We’re not commenting on it because we don’t have it, it’s not ours,” he said. “As much as I wish we could all see the totality of the picture and we could have the person come in and bring in a part of the case, that’d be great, but none of that’s happened.”

Tacoma mayor and police union clash over death

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards is demanding that four police officers be fired and prosecuted following Ellis’ death. Woodards made the comments after video of Ellis’ arrest surfaced.

“In this moment, at this time, based on the information I know today, the officers’ actions we saw on this video tonight only confirmed that Manuel Ellis’ death was a homicide,” Woodards said Thursday in a news conference. “I am asking — no, I am telling you that I am going to call for several things, and the officers who committed this crime should be fired and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Developments related to Ellis’ death come at a time of massive protests and national conversations about the treatment of black people by police, largely sparked by the death last week of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Four now-fired officers face charges in that case, including one who is accused of second-degree murder.

There have been protests in Tacoma over Ellis’ death.

Ellis died of respiratory arrest due to hypoxia caused by physical restraint, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office determined. Hypoxia is a condition in which the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply.

Ellis was black; two of the four officers in his case are white, one is black and one is Asian, according to police.

The Tacoma Police Union wrote in a statement Thursday the mayor passed judgment on the four officers “without any facts, without an investigation, without due process, and with less than a minute of short, blurry, partial Twitter videos in hand.”

“She called them criminals. She called for their prosecution. She called for their termination from employment. And she called for all of these things without an ounce of evidence to support her words beyond misplaced rage,” the union’s statement read.

The union also addressed the death of Floyd, saying it was wrong and “repugnant to the badge” and humanity.

“But understand; Tacoma is not Minneapolis. The incident involving Mr. Ellis here in Tacoma was not the same as the incident involving Mr. Floyd,” the statement read. “This is not the time to sacrifice dedicated public servants at the altar of public sentiment.”

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