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Was Elifritz shooting sound - or suspect?
Jeffrey Noble, former deputy chief in Irvine, California, and a police accountability expert, is that rare breed of cop who believes that police should be criminally prosecuted in fatal shootings more often than they actually are.
But when it comes to the April 7 shooting of John Andrew Elifritz, Noble said there's no question in his mind that the officers involved handled it in a legally and tactically sound manner.
While Noble has often said when a shooting doesn't look right, "In this case," he said of the police decision-making with Elifritz, "everything I'm looking at looks right."
When Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland looks at the same videos and news clippings that Noble did, however, he has a different perspective. To Renaud, the shooting of Elifritz amounts to "murder."
"You really need to start using those words," he said, "because it needs to have a criminal context to it."
The contrast in interpretations after reports, transcripts and videos were released in the case shows the divergence between how police are trained to react in potentially deadly situations and how members of the public sometimes view those actions.
Carjacking, mental crisis
Elifritz, 48, had seemingly been in a mental health crisis that day. He was encountered by police and held a knife to his throat, causing the officers to disengage. He called 911 saying his wife and child had been murdered, which was not true. Meanwhile, other 911 calls came in as he engaged in one attempted carjacking and successfully undertook another, then was implicated in a road rage incident, according to police.
It later came out that he had been a member of the white supremacist group European Kindred, considered by authorities to be a dangerous gang that had its origins in Oregon prisons.
At around 7:30 p.m. Elifritz first entered the CityTeam Ministries homeless shelter, then went to a nearby convenience store, sparking a 911 call of a man with a knife in his hand. He returned to the shelter a little before 8 p.m. and began cutting himself with the knife.
Police began arriving at the scene, and within minutes, Elifritz was dead.
Details were sparse early on, and a bystander video surfaced from an angle that did not clearly picture the scene or show Elifritz menacing officers at the time police shot him.
The day after the shooting, the ACLU of Oregon issued a press statement questioning whether the shooting was legally justified.
"Was there any attempt to de-escalate the situation before officers opened fire inside the homeless shelter full of innocent bystanders? If not, why not?" said the ACLU statement.
An article in Willamette Week linked the shooting to concerns that have been raised over Portland police training on when a person with a knife should be considered a threat. The article characterized the bystander video as showing Elifritz was "separated from officers by the length of a room" at the time of the shooting.
In early May, a criminal grand jury declined to indict the officers involved in the shooting.
But Elifritz's ex-wife and 12-year-old daughter filed a federal lawsuit against the Portland police, accusing officers involved of a "code of silence" and conspiring to lie about the incident and to falsely portray Elifritz as a threat to them.
"Fantastic!" wrote Sarah Iannarone, a former Portland mayoral candidate on Twitter. "A couple of badass civil rights attorneys suing City of Portland for breaking the DOJ settlement via their murder of John Elifritz earlier this year."
Video shows different picture
When the police released their reports, and internal surveillance videos and audio from the shelter, they portrayed a fuller and much different picture of what happened — especially when the different videos and audio were synchronized, as photojournalist Dave Killen did on Oregonlive.com.
Upon entering the shelter, Elifritz had vowed to kill himself as well as "everybody in here."
In the video, police are heard ordering Elifritz to lie down and drop the knife, which is visible in his hand, even as they usher people away from Elifritz.
"Drop the knife."
"Go down to the ground."
"You're going to get bean-bagged."
"You're going to get shot."
"Drop the knife, dude, drop the knife."
"Get down on the ground."
Elifritz can be seen pacing and cutting himself in the neck while watching the police as they file in and give him commands. He appears to yell back at them, though it's not clear what he said.
Then he walked around a table and ran at the police with the knife still in his hand.
In the new videos, he appears to only be 12 to 15 feet from officers, running at them with the knife, when they open fire.
One officer said afterward that the officers didn't have a plan, that things developed too quickly after they went into the shelter.
Asked repeatedly what police should have done differently, Renaud, the longtime mental health activist, says he isn't sure. He said that he hasn't received police training and expressed confidence that whatever he came up with would be contradicted by police. But he still believes the officers involved should no longer be with the police bureau. "I think the police should have acted much more slowly."
The dilemma, he contends, is that "there's a variance between the law and the morality of where the public thinks things should be ... it's the politicians that can change the rules, and that's what needs to be done here."
Expert testified for indicting cops
Noble is a co-author, with one of the more aggressive police oversight experts, of a respected textbook on police accountability. He's also a proponent of a theory calling for more aggressive scrutiny of police decision-making in shootings, arguing for culpability in reckless police decision-making.
He was retained by prosecutors and testified in favor of convicting the officer involved in the high-profile Philando Castile shooting in Minnesota in 2016. And he was retained by the family of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was fatally shot by police in Cleveland in 2014, providing testimony to the grand jury that the officer involved should be indicted.
Noble said that tactically speaking, police entry into the homeless shelter — which has been criticized by advocates — was entirely the right call.
"I would absolutely expect them to do that and I would criticize them if they didn't do that," he said. "There were people at risk in there.
"Police officers are trained ever since Columbine, when you have an active threat, you go toward the active threat. You don't just leave the active threat inside a building like that because of the risk of injury to other people. You look at the video, there are a lot of people in there and there are disabled people in there. I see one man in a wheelchair ... He just sat there the whole time."
Noble said he supports de-escalation tactics — essentially talking to someone — but he says it's not a panacea, and in this case, there wasn't much else officers could do, given how quickly things played out.
Noble also thinks the shooting was legally justified under the Supreme Court standard, which essentially asks whether there is an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to an officer or somebody else at the time the officers pull the trigger.
"The officers didn't just run in there and shoot him. The officers ran in there and they tried to talk to him, they tried to give commands. It appears they tried to use less-lethal means to try to get him to stop. And then they didn't shoot him until he started running at them with a knife."
Elifritz's ex-wife's lawyer, Andrew Stroth, said the release of the new videos don't change his view of things, and the lawsuit will proceed. "From our view the officers were not in danger," he said. "These officers were in a homeless shelter, not Afghanistan."
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