Community protests police shooting of Portland man in crisis

Participants say police need better de-escalation tactics

Activist group Portland’s Resistance hosted a rally and resource drive Wednesday, April 11 outside Portland City Hall to protest the police shooting of 48-year-old John Elifritz, who family members say may have been having a mental health crisis when he was killed on April 7. Between 50 and 100 people attended the event.

Seven officers and one deputy opened fire on Elifritz in the Cityteam Portland homeless shelter, where Elifritz entered with a knife and, according to some witnesses, was cutting himself in the neck.

Speakers and participants denounced the actions of the officers involved in the shooting, as well as what they called the Portland Police Bureau’s history of violence. “We live in a city where police are continuously shooting people,” said Gregory McKelvey, founder of Portland’s Resistance. “A lot of people come up with excuses. They say ‘crimes were committed, he had a knife’ or ‘he had some problematic affiliations in the past’ or something like that. None of that is a reason for somebody to be executed in the streets.”

Officers called PPB’s Behavioral Health Unit earlier in the day on April 7 after Elifritz called 911 and reported his family had been murdered. When officers responded, Elifritz held a knife to his throat before running from officers. PPB officers said they believe Elifritz later stole a Honda CR-V by force hours before he was shot and believe he may also have been armed with a gun.

The police finally intercepted Elifritz in the shelter at around 8 p.m., where he had interrupted an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and was reportedly wielding a knife and cutting himself. After refusing to drop the knife and, according to witnesses, striking out at a police dog, the officers fired several rounds at Elifritz and killed him.

According to The Oregonian, some witnesses believe the killing was justified because onlookers reported fearing for their lives. Additionally, Willamette Week discovered Elifritz called himself a member of the white supremacist gang European Kindred in 2007. It is not clear whether or not Elifritz had been a member for the last 11 years.

Social media posts from his family and friends suggested that Elifritz, who has struggled with methamphetamine use in the past, had been suffering from a mental health crisis. “Regardless of his ideology, this man was in crisis,” McKelvey said in a Twitter post. “He needed help, not a bullet.”

Three of the PPB officers involved in the shooting have previously been criticized for excessive use of force. In 2010, Officer Andrew Polas was involved in the shooting of Keaton Otis during a traffic stop, and Officer Chad Phifer repeatedly fired a taser at a man with a mental illness named Samuel Michael Serrill. In 2014, Officer Bradley Nutting used a stun gun on bicyclist Matthew Klug six times in 15 seconds.

Speaker Jo Ann Hardesty, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Portland branch, who is currently running for Portland City Council, reminded the crowd that the Justice Department found Portland Police guilty of using excessive force against people with mental illness in 2012. Hardesty criticized the PPB for not providing adequate mental health crisis intervention training and for not holding officers accountable for their actions.

“If you are too scared to de-escalate someone who is suffering from a mental health issue, look for a new profession,” Hardesty said. “We have to [hold rallies] too often because of a lack of accountability.”

Organizers read a list of names of unarmed people of color who were shot by police since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. The reading lasted for almost three minutes. Portland’s Resistance also collected food and supplies to be distributed to organizations helping the houseless community.

This shooting follows Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposal for the city to hire anywhere from 14 to 93 more police officers. “That’s not the solution that our community needs,” McKelvey said. “We need more assistance…we need more mental health services, we need more addiction services. We need support, not bullets.”