Here’s what we know: On Saturday, April 7, Portland police stormed a Cityteam Ministries homeless shelter on Southeast Grand and fatally shot 48-year-old John Elifritz. According to witnesses, Elifritz had entered the shelter shirtless around 7:45 pm and began stabbing himself with a knife. It was clear to some witnesses that he was in the midst of some kind of mental crisis, but to police, Elifritz was a suspect—a man they believed had crashed a stolen Honda in the middle of MLK Jr. Blvd.
In the cell phone video capturing the encounter, Elifritz looks stunned as a dozen armed police officers—standing about 20 feet away—yell at him to “Drop the knife!” He doesn’t. Witnesses say Elifritz swung the knife at a barking police dog, prompting officers to shoot. By 8:15 pm, Elifritz was dead.
The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) has since released the names of the seven officers and one sheriff’s deputy involved in the incident. At least three of those officers have already been called out—either by the feds, community advocates, or the city’s Citizens Review Commission—for using unnecessary force against people undergoing a mental health crisis.
While the investigation into Elifritz’s death is only a few days old, one thing’s resoundingly obvious: PPB continues to falter, with sometimes horrific consequences, when faced with individuals in clear mental distress.
Next week, the city’s going to have to explain why to the feds.
Elifritz’s death came days before an April 19 check-in between Portland and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) over how the city’s cops treat people with mental illness. The feds have requested annual reports since a 2011 DOJ investigation found that PPB consistently engages in a “pattern of... unnecessary or unreasonable force during interactions with people who have or are perceived to have mental illness.”
Portland eventually reached a settlement with the feds, agreeing to overhaul how PPB understands and reacts to mental health crises.
Under Mayor Ted Wheeler and newly minted Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, Portland’s already seen a few areas in which the city’s failed to live up to its agreement with the DOJ (like holding regular community police oversight committee meetings—or even finding someone to lead them). But when considering the efficacy of PPB’s attempts to deter moments of “unreasonable force,” the feds won’t need to look further than last weekend’s shooting. Or, at least, the moment it went off the rails.
According to PPB, officers had been following Elifritz since 2:30 pm Sunday, after receiving calls depicting a man acting in a “bizarre manner.” When a pair of cops tried to confront him later that afternoon, Elifritz held a knife to his own neck and ran away. The officers then contacted the bureau’s Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) to follow up.
This is where the story could have taken a different course.
The BHU—formed as a direct response to the DOJ settlement—has trained officers to act as first responders for behavioral health crises in which the subject is violent, has a weapon, or is threatening to attempt suicide. Officers volunteer for BHU duty, meaning they’re only dispatched to a crisis if they aren’t busy with another call.
While Elifritz’s encounter clearly fits the description of a “crisis,” PPB spokesperson Chris Burley says BHU did not respond to the officer’s follow-up call on Saturday.
Instead—hours later—a group of armed officers cornered the visibly shaken man in a corner of a crowded homeless shelter, barking orders at him to drop the same knife he’d reportedly used on his own throat.
A March report commissioned by the city of Portland pointed to flaws in the BHU’s system, noting the system “requires some revision.”
Let’s see what the DOJ has to say.