Thurston County residents speak out at sheriff’s office forum after hiring of officer acquitted in Manuel Ellis’ death

‘You managed to thoroughly anger all facets of our community,’ one attendee said


The roughly 30 Thurston County residents who spoke at the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office’s public forum on Thursday had differing opinions on the controversial hiring and sudden resignation of Christopher Burbank, a former Tacoma police officer who was acquitted in the murder trial of Manny Ellis, who died while he was in police custody.

All of them did agree that, in one way or another, Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders made mistakes in handling the situation.

“You managed to thoroughly anger all facets of our community,” resident Peggy Madsen said.

Burbank and two other former Tacoma police officers, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine, were accused of killing 33-year-old Ellis during an arrest on March 3, 2020, after the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office reported Ellis had attacked a police car and officers, a claim disputed by multiple civilian witnesses.

The Pierce County medical examiner determined his cause of death was lack of oxygen due to physical restraint.

All three officers were acquitted on charges related to Ellis’ death in December 2023.

The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday, April 1, that it had hired Burbank as a deputy, noting his 14 years of patrol experience and the “immediate relief” his addition to the roster would provide the patrol division.

Two days later, on Wednesday, April 3, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office announced that Burbank had resigned effective immediately due to “community response and death threats made to Deputy Burbank’s family,” according to previous Chronicle reporting.

“First and foremost, I would say the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to slow down,” Sanders said Thursday, adding that he has been “going about 110 mph since I got into office trying to fix every problem.”

He has also gained perspective on “the overall criminal justice system and just how much distrust there is, protruding at just about every angle … but I also had to take another step back and recognize that I’m not going to give up on it and I’m going to continue and try to be a part of the solution.”

One speaker on Thursday expressed disappointment in Sanders for not sticking with his original decision to hire Burbank, while several others called for Sanders to resign for the harm the hiring decision caused Thurston County’s Black community. Others simply expressed disappointment in the situation and thanked Sanders for his willingness to acknowledge his mistakes and learn from them going forward.

“He’s young in his career as a sheriff in this county. He is expressing the fact that there were lessons learned, that he’s wiser, brighter, smarter as a result of this unfortunate incident, which it was,” resident Thelma Jackson said.

One of the most impactful testimonies of the evening came from Ellis’ sister, Monét Carter-Mixon, who moved to Thurston County with her family for their safety following the trial.

Carter-Mixon said Thursday she spoke about her move to Thurston County on the record during the trial in 2023, so Burbank would have known she was a Thurston County resident at the time he applied to work with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office.

“It's very odd out of every county in the state of Washington, it just so happened to be Thurston County, where … my young, Black children ride around the neighborhood, go to the convenience stores like their uncle did on their bikes or walking, especially on late summer nights coming from the pool. I don't want someone like (Burbank) patrolling my neighborhood that I do pay taxes in and where I do live at,” Carter-Mixon said.

Sanders responded that he did not know ahead of Thursday’s forum that Carter-Mixon and her family were living in Thurston County, saying that it didn’t come up during the hiring process.

“I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t tell those officers to kill my brother … That’s an issue in Tacoma. I don’t want those issues here, where I live and I’m choosing to raise my family,” Carter-Mixon said.

According to Sanders, the hiring process for the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office includes a day-long public safety exam, a physical fitness exam and a background investigation. That investigation involves the applicant “filling out this packet that is extremely thick, where it goes over pretty much everything anyone’s ever done in their entire life. It goes all the way back to childhood,” Sanders said.

A background investigator then goes through everything in the packet and looks into any “points of concern.” The applicant then takes a polygraph to confirm they’re telling the truth about their background, followed by a psychological exam and a medical exam.

The process as a whole can take anywhere from one to three months, Sanders said.

In Burbanks’ case, Sanders said the fact that he was acquitted by a jury and that the Tacoma Police Department did its own investigation meant that, legally, his involvement in the Manny Ellis case wasn’t a point of concern.

“Even the state at this point in time is unlikely (going) to decertify him,” Sanders said.

“I simply cannot understand how a deputy can be hired and move forward with their career when they were actually involved in the killing of another human being,” said Thurston County resident S. Baker. “One can be acquitted and still be guilty.”

In a Facebook post following Thursday’s forum, Sanders and the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office thanked the community for taking the time to attend.

“Our aim was to provide a safe and welcoming space for individuals to express their opinions without any interruptions or judgments. We deeply appreciate the time and effort taken by people to come, listen, and speak. Regardless of whether you were in favor of or against the Sheriff or Sheriff's Office, we heard and carefully considered all your thoughts, comments, and opinions,” the sheriff’s office stated.

On his personal sheriff page, Sanders wrote, “It is my hope that those who spoke tonight felt heard, because whether we agree or not, we listened. The only thing worse than a leader who makes mistakes is one that believes they don’t. The only way forward is up, because tough times never last but tough people do. So we press on for those who need us.”