Wash. PD warned about recruit's 'unjustifiable' shooting in simulation before death of Manuel Ellis
The exercise was designed to assess whether cadets recognize when to use nonlethal force; Timothy Rankine was the only recruit to shoot the virtual suspect
By Patrick Malone
The Seattle Times
TACOMA, Wash. — Two months before he became a full-fledged police officer, and 15 months before he helped fatally restrain Manuel Ellis, Timothy Rankine behaved so bizarrely during a training exercise that the state's police academy warned the Tacoma Police Department about him, according to a memo obtained by The Seattle Times.
Rankine was the lone recruit in his academy class of 30 to shoot an on-screen suspect in a virtual test, an action his instructor called "completely unjustifiable." The December 2018 exercise was designed to assess whether cadets recognize when to use nonlethal force. Rankine shot the virtual suspect, then lapsed deeper into what his trainer described in a memo as "mental condition black."
The trainer found Rankine's reaction to his mistake and what happened next noteworthy enough to share details with academy leaders, who two days later shared them with the Tacoma Police Department, emails show.
But Tacoma hired Rankine anyway. And in just seven months on patrol, Rankine twice knelt on suspects until they pleaded that they couldn't breathe. Ellis died on March 3, 2020, leading to charges against Rankine and two other officers in the high-profile case.
During his short time on duty, Rankine's actions also generated two civil lawsuits against the city of Tacoma alleging excessive force, court records show. Rankine's criminal defense attorneys from the Seattle law firm of Frey Buck did not return phone or email messages seeking comment.
A police academy spokesperson characterized the test as "an ungraded task," but two experts in police behavior — one local, one national — said Rankine's reaction indicated a possible psychological barrier that would make it difficult for him to succeed as a police officer.
Pierce Murphy, who led police oversight in Boise, Idaho, and Seattle, and John Violanti, a research professor at the University at Buffalo who's written or edited 17 books on police stress and its effects, reviewed the memo at The Seattle Times' request.
Based on his review, Murphy questioned whether Rankine was ever fit to be hired as a police officer and how seriously the Tacoma Police Department takes warning signs about recruits, something the department declined to directly answer.
The academy "has an obligation not to pass somebody that can't successfully deal with this situation on the street," Murphy said.
Tacoma Police Department's spokesperson declined to answer what steps were taken to specifically address Rankine's actions noted in the memo.
Two other Tacoma officers, Matthew Collins, 39, and Christopher "Shane" Burbank, 37, face charges of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in Ellis' death. The charges against them and Rankine, now 34 and charged with first-degree manslaughter, matched in a single day the number of criminal prosecutions law enforcement officers in Washington state have faced for in-custody deaths in the past 40 years.
All three defendants have pleaded not guilty, are free on bail and are set to face trial in late January. They have been on paid leave for more than 2 1/2 years.
Rankine told detectives investigating Ellis' death that his traumatic combat experience, which included sustaining injuries that earned him the Purple Heart and seeing soldiers he knew well die before his eyes, shaped his response the night Ellis died, when he misinterpreted vague police radio traffic to mean fellow officers were being killed.
Murphy suspects the same factors were at work when Rankine overreacted and shot the simulated suspect in the academy test. He also noted Rankine's similar responses to the test and to Ellis' killing.
"What's remarkable about this, even after the simulation was over, Rankine according to this trainer had no awareness of what he'd done wrong, thought he'd done fine," Murphy said.
The morning after Ellis died, Rankine and his patrol partner, Masyih Ford, exchanged text messages, obtained by The Seattle Times, expressing satisfaction with their performance and said they wouldn't do anything differently.
"Taking this memo [on the training exercise] at face value," Murphy said, "I would wonder why he was able to pass the academy at all."
"Unjustifiable" shooting in simulation
On Dec. 26, 2018, Rankine and other recruits at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission's law enforcement academy faced a test in the Patrol Procedures Tactics Refresher 1 course. It assessed how recruits responded to situations involving on-screen characters controlled by their instructor, in this case a hypothetical call to check on the welfare of someone at a park.
Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission spokesperson Megan Saunders described the test as "akin to a video game or simulator" and "a virtual training scenario where officers are placed in a room with projected images on the screen that interact with the recruits. An instructor controls the situations and guides the scenario based on the responses of the officers."
Recruits were told that the subject of the call was arrested the week prior and at that time was armed with a knife and acted aggressively toward officers. The call at hand was prompted by a woman who said the subject verbally threatened to stab her daughter, according to the memo by the trainer, William Davis, a Kent police officer.
As Rankine and his partner approached the virtual suspect, "Rankine attempted to talk to him but his verbal abilities broke down almost immediately," according to the memo. When the suspect demanded to see Rankine's credentials, "Recruit Rankine was actually arguing with the suspect on the screen."
The suspect assumed a boxer's stance. He taunted and threatened to fight Rankine. "Rankine immediately drew his firearm," according to the memo. He tried to engage the suspect verbally again, at which point his instructor prompted him that conversation wasn't working. Rankine then shot the suspect.
Rankine would have passed the simulated test if he'd acted out the steps of taking physical control of the virtual suspect using nonlethal force, which was justified by the suspect's apparent desire to fight, Murphy said.
"During the debrief it was apparent that Recruit Rankine had again went into mental condition black" — a state of mind that distorts visual and auditory cues, according to Murphy — "and had overreacted," according to Davis' memo. "This was a 'no shoot' scenario. There was no lethal threat, weapons seen or any other factors that would justify this use of force."
When Davis asked Rankine to explain his actions, according to his memo, Rankine claimed the suspect had lowered his hands toward a bulge in his waistline, which to him indicated the suspect was reaching for a firearm.
Except that wasn't true, because the simulated suspect had no weapon and made no gestures that would have suggested he was reaching for one, according to the memo. None of the information presented to the trainees indicated the simulated suspect was armed.
Davis observed that the mental state Rankine had lapsed into during the training scenario included "auditory exclusion" that caused him to tune out "vital information."
"Rankine had not heard any of the radio updates from either dispatch or his beat partner," Davis wrote in the memo.
As Davis discussed Rankine's decision with him, Rankine "emotionally shut down and was not listening to what I was saying," according to the memo. "It was apparent that he did not value or care for the debrief. At this point I stopped trying to explain it to Rankine because it was a lost cause."
The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission shared Davis' concerns about the training exercise with the Tacoma Police Department two days later, when training officer Russ Hicks emailed Davis' memo to Tacoma Police Department Sgt. Jon Verone, public records obtained by The Seattle Times showed.
Rankine graduated from the academy a month later. Soon he was deployed by the Tacoma Police Department as a patrol officer.
Rankine's performance on the training exercise alone wouldn't necessarily disqualify him from academy graduation, Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission spokesperson Saunders said. But Saunders acknowledged it was flagged for the Tacoma Police Department to consider before hiring Rankine.
Two incidents of "I can't breathe"
Within a year of the training test, Rankine was involved in a use of force incident that exposed Tacoma to legal liability.
On Dec. 16, 2019, Rankine and his patrol partner, Ford, responded to a call about a man and a woman arguing loudly. When they arrived, Dustin Dean greeted them at the door.
Dean told The Seattle Times he was taken aback by the officers' presence. Dean and his girlfriend, Vanessa Henriquez-Ray, were not arguing but jovially teasing each other after a fun night at a holiday party. Henriquez-Ray corroborated Dean's version of the events in a phone interview.
Dean resisted the officers' attempts to cuff him, so Ford took him to the ground by his hair and dragged him down a flight of stairs by his leg while Henriquez-Ray recorded video with her cellphone, according to Ford's report. Ford aimed his Taser at Henriquez-Ray, the supposed victim, while Rankine knelt on Dean's back, prompting Dean to cry out, "I can't breathe!" Prosecutors later determined that Dean committed no crime.
Tacoma police personnel records show Rankine and Ford were never investigated or disciplined for the incident, but Dean has filed a $500,000 lawsuit against the city of Tacoma.
Less than three months later, on the night of March 3, 2020, Rankine and Ford responded to a south Tacoma intersection. They'd heard a series of clicks from officers Collins and Burbank on their police radios. They found Collins trying to shackle Ellis' feet and Burbank sitting on Ellis' back, according to transcripts of interviews with detectives from the Pierce County Sheriff's Department investigating Ellis' death.
Rankine took Burbank's place atop Ellis. Ellis told Rankine twice, "I can't breathe," Rankine later explained to detectives. "I was like, 'If you're talking to me, you can breathe just fine,' " Rankine said.
Within minutes, Ellis, who was 33, died at the scene. The Pierce County Medical Examiner's officer ruled Ellis' death a homicide caused by oxygen deprivation from being restrained. Heart disease and the presence of methamphetamine in his system were listed as contributing factors.
Collins and Burbank said Ellis instigated the struggle that ended his life. But witnesses and their cellphone videos contradicted the officers' accounts and paint the officers as the aggressors.
Ellis' family is suing Tacoma for $30 million. Pierce County, which initially was responsible for investigating Ellis' death until it was learned that one of its deputies helped restrain Ellis, has already settled a $4 million claim with the family.
Similarities to Ellis case
Rankine's behavior during the training exercise bore striking similarities to his reaction to the mic clicks the night Ellis was killed, possibly due to horrors he'd seen on the battlefield, Murphy said.
Rankine told detectives that when he heard the mic clicks from Burbank and Collins, "The first thought that came across my mind due to my prior experience in the military was I was expecting, you know, I was, I was thinking the worst, that Officer Burbank and Officer Collins most likely were either dead or shot. I related their heavy breathing to listening to friends of mine that I lost overseas."
Murphy has seen what Rankine's instructor termed "mental condition black" many times, often from police recruits who've experienced military combat trauma. Rankine, Collins and Burbank are combat veterans of the U.S. Army who came to Tacoma when assigned to nearby Joint Base Lewis McChord after tours of combat duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they had front-row seats to some of the bloodiest campaigns of the conflict, their military records and U.S. Department of Defense accounts of their units showed.
Research supports that prior trauma influences responses to stressors, Violanti said.
"It is possible that Mr. Rankine's judgments and action were influenced in some way by his prior combat military service," Violanti said. "First, as a combat soldier, he had direct exposure to witnessing death, seeing close friends die, and being subject to continued vigilance and fear of dying himself during combat."
Past trauma disrupts cognitive control processes, such as impulse regulation, according to Violanti. For police officers, that's problematic because their jobs require heightened attention and often pose psychologically stressful situations, although extra training and psychological intervention can identify and help mitigate some problems.
" 'Do I shoot or not?' is an example," Violanti said. "This inhibition may happen during heightened arousal to a threat and disrupt attention and proper danger of the threat, leading to decisions that become colored by PTSD that could possibly be incorrect."
Academy exercises aim to identify specific weaknesses recruits have and correct them, said Saunders, the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission's spokesperson.
Violanti said many police agencies have strengthened screening processes to specifically look for signs of PTSD in recruits. To be most effective, he said, these screenings should be repeated annually to take into account the trauma police officers experience on the job.
It's not clear whether Rankine ever received this type of support from the Tacoma Police Department to address his performance on the exercise.
He took the officer's oath at the Tacoma Police Department in January 2019 and initially was assigned to desk duty, Rankine's personnel records showed.
In August 2019, he was assigned to the graveyard patrol shift with Ford, also a rookie, as his partner. Rankine completed his six-month probationary period as a patrol officer less than one month before Ellis was killed.
Tacoma Police Department spokesperson Wendy Haddow did not respond to specific questions about any remedial training Rankine received after the academy sent its warning. However, Haddow did share a department policy that shows new academy graduates receive field training from more experienced officers and must complete it successfully to be retained.
Rankine's co-defendant Burbank was one of his Tacoma police field trainers after he graduated from the police academy during the period when Murphy said Rankine's academy training response should have been corrected.
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