A judge has dismissed a federal lawsuit accusing the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) of wrongfully killing John Elifritz, a 48-year-old man who was fatally shot by officers in April 2018.
Elifritz, who suspected of stealing a car and threatening people with a knife, was shot shortly after ducking inside the Cityteam Ministries homeless shelter in southeast Portland on the evening of April 7. Based on security video footage and witness testimony, Elifritz appeared to have stabbed himself—and be in the midst of a behavioral health crisis—when officers arrived on the scene, cornering Elifritz in the crowded shelter. Elifritz was standing by a pillar in the back of the room when officers shouted at him to drop his knife and shot him with non-lethal "bean bag" bullets
But when Elifritz began walking swiftly toward the line of law enforcement officers, they opened fire, killing him immediately.
A month after his death, a grand jury ruled that the officers were justified in their lethal use of force. This outcome prompted Elifritz's family—including his ex-wife and 12-year-old daughter—to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the PPB in late March 2018.
That case came to a close Wednesday.
In a 51-page ruling, US District Judge Marco Hernández explained why he chose to dismiss the lawsuit instead of letting it go forward to a trial.
"Elifritz had committed serious crimes, did not respond to officers’ commands, behaved erratically, did not respond to the use of less lethal force, and attacked the officers with a knife minutes after a bystander told the officers that Elifritz had tried to stab people," Hernández wrote.
"As a result, Elifritz posed an immediate threat of serious injury or death to the officers, and it was reasonable for the officers to respond with deadly force, even if Elifritz was experiencing a mental health crisis," he continued. "No reasonable juror could conclude otherwise from the evidence in the record."
One of the lawsuit's central arguments was around PPB officers' decision to use lethal force against Elifritz, accusing PPB officials of "encourag[ing] the use of excessive and unreasonable force" against someone who appeared to be in crisis.
Hernández rejected that argument.
"Plaintiff’s argument that Elifritz did not create an immediate threat of serious injury or death fails to account for the fact that Elifritz was running toward the officers with the knife when they shot him," Hernández writes. "Had the officers shot Elifritz when he stood behind the pillar, the Court may be inclined to agree that Elifritz did not pose an immediate threat of serious injury or death to the officers and bystanders. But circumstances changed when Elifritz ran toward the officers with the knife. Those circumstances elevated the threat to an immediate threat of serious injury or death to the officers."
Lawyers representing Elifritz's family declined to comment on the ruling Thursday. Read the entire decision here.