Family of Man Killed by Portland Police in Homeless Shelter Sues City and Officers Who Fired Their Guns

The family's lawyers argue that a "police code of silence" protects officers who use unlawful force and encourages others to do so in the future.

The family of John Andrew Elifritz, who was shot and killed last month by seven Portland police officers and a Multnomah County Sheriff's deputy, filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court May 22 against the City of Portland for unreasonable use of deadly force, battery and wrongful death.

The deadly April 7 shooting took place in a homeless shelter near downtown Portland.

The family's lawyers, Timothy R. Volpert and Andrew M. Stroth, say the police violated Elifritz's civil rights by firing "without lawful justification." They allege that the shooting is part of a pattern of excessive force used by Portland police, dating back to 2006 and documented in a 2012 Settlement Agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"At the time the Defendant Officers shot John Elifritz, he did not present a threat to the safety to either of the Defendant Officers or to any other person," the lawsuit says.

A grand jury earlier this month declined to indict the officers and deputy on criminal charges.

Elifritz, 48, had encountered police earlier in the day while showing signs of mental distress. He later stole a car and crashed it before bursting into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting taking place inside Cityteam Ministries Portland Shelter. Witnesses said Elifritz cut himself with a knife before police showed up.

The lawsuit alleges that officers "stormed the homeless shelter with their AR-15s and weapons drawn and a police trained K-9 dog."

Bystander video shows more than a dozen officers shouting orders at Elifritz, telling him to drop the knife, and firing bean bags at him. (The responding officers included members of the Central Precinct, the Transit Division and the Gang Enforcement Team. In a 2007 Portland Monthly profile, Elifritz identified himself as a member of the European Kindred, a white supremacist prison gang.)

Eight of the officers fired their weapons from a rooms-length away, video shows, which sparked some advocates to question whether the officer's lives were in imminent danger when they pulled the triggers.

The lawsit alleges that officers made "false, misleading, and/or incomplete official reports and/or to give false, incomplete, and/or misleading versions of the events to their superiors and to the public."

Volpert and Stroth argue that a "police code of silence" protects officers who use unlawful force and encourages others to do so in the future.

"But for the belief that they would be protected, both by fellow officers and by the City of Portland, from serious consequences," the suit says, "Defendant Officers would not have engaged in the conduct that resulted in the shooting and death of John Elifritz."

The suit names the City of Portland, Portland Police Officers Richard Bailey, Justin Damerville, Kameron Fender, Alexandru Martiniuc, Bradley Nutting, Chad Phifer, Andrew Polas, and Multnomah County Sheriff's Deputy Aaron Sieczkowski as defendants. Elifritz's family is seeking damages and attorneys fees, but does not specify a dollar amount sought.

Representatives of the Portland Police Bureau and the Sheriff's Office could not immediately be reached for comment. This story will be updated with their response.