Crime Judge dismisses suit against Portland police who fatally shot armed man inside homeless shelter
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A federal judge has dismissed the wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Portland stemming from the April 2018 police fatal shooting of John Elifritz, who stormed into a Southeast Portland homeless shelter armed with a knife.
U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez called the 48-year-old man’s death a “tragedy for all concerned,’’ but said the circumstances required several police officers to make a split-second decision.
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The judge, having reviewed video footage that captured the shooting, found that Elifritz posed an immediate threat of serious injury or death to the officers who followed him into the shelter and confronted him there.
When officers shot him, Elifritz had closed some of the distance between himself and the officers, was running toward the police and “was only seconds short of reaching the officers with his knife when they fired the first shot,’’ Hernandez wrote in hisfiled Wednesday in court.
“At the time, Mr. Elifritz was experiencing a mental health crisis, was under the influence of drugs, or both. Mr. Elifritz’s death is a tragedy for all concerned, including Mr. Elifritz, his family, and the police officers and bystanders who were present at the scene,’’ the judge wrote.
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“Notwithstanding its tragic nature, however, it is clear that the officers’ use of deadly force under the unique circumstances of this case did not violate the Fourth Amendment or create a basis for a wrongful death claim under Oregon law.’’
Barbara Elifritz and the couple’s daughter, Stormy, the representatives of his estate, sued the city and Portland police in May 2018, alleging police stormed into the CityTeam Ministries shelter on April 7, 2018, with AR-15 rifles and a police dog and used excessive force against Elifritz. His family said John Elifritz was experiencing a mental health crisis and posed no threat to the officers.
In response, the city argued that Elifritz’s behavior -- his failure to drop his knife after repeated police commands and his decision to lunge at officers -- led police to shoot and kill him. They argued in court papers that his death was his fault alone.
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The city also cited Elifritz's use of methamphetamine that day, his carjacking of an SUV that he then drove dangerously and the cutting of his neck while he was moving erratically around the crowded shelter as examples of his reckless actions.
The judge further found that less-lethal shots would likely not have stopped Elifritz’s final “charge’’ toward officers, as two officers each had shot several less-lethal sponge-tipped projectiles at Elifritz that had no effect on him earlier in the shelter.
Elifritz’s string of crimes that preceded the police encounter at the shelter – pulling a woman from her car, stealing the car, recklessly driving it before crashing and standing outside a convenience store with a knife – gave officers “an objectively reasonable belief’’ that Elifritz would endanger other people in the shelter, the judge wrote.
“Even if other options for responding to the threat posed by Elifritz were possible, that fact alone does not make the officer defendants’ use of deadly force unreasonable,'' Hernandez found. "When Elifritz started running toward them with the knife, the Fourth Amendment required only that the officer defendants’ use of deadly force be objectively reasonable under a totality of the circumstances.’’
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Lawyers for Elifritz’s family had argued that the officers didn’t take steps to de-escalate the situation, by evacuating people from the shelter, calling specialized crisis intervention officers to calm Elifritz down and using time and distance to the police officers’ advantage as Police Bureau policy dictates.
“Any PPB policy violation that may have occurred when the officer defendants shot Elifritz does not establish a Fourth Amendment violation under the facts of this case,’’ Hernandez wrote. “There is no evidence, beyond Plaintiff’s unsupported argument, that verbal techniques would have calmed Elifritz, caused him to behave rationally or cooperate, or that using distance, cover, barriers, or other methods to isolate Elifritz were viable options.’’
Considering Elifritz’s erratic behavior, the serious crimes he committed earlier that night, his refusal to respond to officers’ commands and his lunge toward officers with a knife, he posed an immediate threat and officers responded reasonably with deadly force, the judge wrote, "even if Elifritz was experiencing a mental health crisis.''
-- Maxine Bernstein
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