UPDATE (5:40 p.m. PT) — The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office released grand jury transcripts Monday in the case of John Elifritz, a man killed by police at a homeless shelter in Southeast Portland in April.
The transcripts provide a window into the thoughts of witnesses and police officers in the moments leading up to Elifritz’s death. They also provide an understanding a what officers knew at the time they responded.
“There’s talk about him with a knife, talk about him attempting to stab people,” Portland Police Bureau Detective Erik Kammerer testified to the grand jury. “And this is the information the officers have when they approach this situation.”
The transcripts also give at least three previously unknown insights:
- After learning Elifritz had a knife, at least two officers said they were concerned the shelter, filled with bystanders, could be a repeat of last spring’s attack aboard a TriMet light rail train that left two people dead.
- Elifritz had methamphetamine in his system when he was killed.
- Officers were using a new form of less lethal round that had been adopted one month earlier. Several officers described the foam rounds as bouncing off Elifritz and “didn’t have any effect on him.”
The shooting of Elifritz drew outrage initially, in part because it was filmed by a bystander and uploaded to social media. The Portland Police Bureau has been criticized in the past for how officers respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis. Witnesses described Elifritz as acting erratically, like he was on drugs or in the middle of a mental health crisis, in the hours and moments that led up to his death.
Elifritz’s family has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city for its use of force.
Last month, the DA’s office announced that after four days of testimony, the grand jury chose not to charge seven Portland Police Bureau officers and one Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputy involved in the shooting.
During the second day of testimony, a member of the grand jury asked Portland Police Sgt. Roger Axthelm about de-escalation. Axthelm was the shift supervisor and was on the scene when Elifritz was shot.
“Is there ever a protocol for de-escalation?,” the juror asked. “Like, what other tools are there, what other options besides deadly force?”
“Well, the problem is, I mean, deescalation is a — is a great term and that’s what we all use and kind of a buzzword,” Axthelm responded. “But we can’t really work at, quote, unquote, ‘de-escalation,’ until I can make sure I have containment and isolation on this person and it’s safe for the people — for the other people who were in there.”
Axthelm said when he ordered officers on scene to enter the shelter, he was mostly concerned that Elifritz might attack someone who was inside the shelter. He said he did not want to see a repeat of a May 2017 incident in which Jeremy Christian, another man acting erratically in the enclosed space of a MAX train car, killed two people and injured a third with a knife.
“I was working when the — the slaughter happened on the MAX train last summer where the guy with the knife came, murdered two people on the train and darn near killed the other guy,” testified MCSO Deputy Aaron Sieczkowski, one of the officers that filed lethal rounds at Elifritz. “I saw all the videos in that. And, God, it’s horrific what — what a knife can do in a close situation like that.”
Sieczkowski said for the people inside the shelter “there was no way out.”
“They were stuck in this room with this guy in this closed thing with this — it’s just like this — this stinking TriMet incident, right?” he said.
Elifritz had an extensive criminal history and was part of a white supremacy gang while in prison, records show. He also has a noted history with drug use.
Deputy State Medical Examiner Clifford Nelson told grand jurors that toxicology tests showed Elifritz had methamphetamine in his system.
Nelson testified he couldn’t say precisely how the amount of meth in Elifritz’s blood — 0.33 milligrams per liter — would affect the man, but he ventured some observation based on video footage.
“He does not appear to be crashing,” Nelson said. “He’s common — commonly referred to as tweaking.”
Witnesses throughout the transcripts make reference to Elifritz acting as if he was intoxicated, but Nelson’s testimony is the first word from a medical official that Elifritz had drugs in his system when he was killed.
Video of the incident shows Elifritz cutting himself near his neck with a knife in the homeless shelter, and later moving toward police — knife in hand — before several officers shoot him.
Before Elifritz entered the shelter, he had held a knife at the neck of Andrew McKimmy, who described himself as a regular at My Father’s Place restaurant and bar across the street from the shelter.
“He smoothly, yet swiftly and steadily brought a knife out to my neck. And at that point there was some dialogue,” McKimmy testified to the grand jury. McKimmy said Elifritz told him, his plan was to steal an ambulance that was near the homeless shelter on an unrelated call. But Elifritz quickly abandoned that plan, McKimmy testified.
Less Lethal Weapons
Inside the shelter, police fired a total of 17 lethal rounds at Elifritz, according to the grand jury transcripts. But before police used lethal force, officers used a new form of less lethal force.
The month before the shooting, the bureau moved from bean bag rounds to new foam bullets, said Sgt. Chris Burley, a spokesman for the agency.
“Each less lethal operator had to receive and additional 10 hours of training to be authorized to operate this tool,” Burley said in an email.
In the grand jury transcripts, officers note that the rounds — called a 40mm sponge round — are more accurate because, unlike the bean bag rounds, the sponge rounds are fired through a barrel, which gives them spin. They also can shoot farther than bean bag rounds.
“And what — the new system we’re using is 40 millimeter,” Sgt. Axthelm testified. “It’s a bigger round, more impact, but it’s single shot also, so the less-lethal guys have to — if they fire one round, they have to break it, throw that cartridge out, put a new one in, lock it back up and reacquire their target again.”
Axthelm, the ranking officer on the scene, also testified it was the first time he had seen the new less lethal measures used in the field.
“I saw him get hit a few times in the lower waist or below the waist,” Portland Police Officer Grover Robinson testified. “But I do recall he had — they didn’t have any effect on him … Typically, you would see somebody kind of buckle over or — just from the impact of, you know, the initial round.”
Robinson said Elifritz just kept pacing back and forth.
“I just recently went through the training and got certified as a less-lethal operator, so I have first-hand knowledge of seeing what — that they can do, how fast it — it travels and its impact on the target and whatnot,” Robinson testified. “But with him not having any reaction to it, it kind of testifies in and of itself to his will to fight or his state of mind or possible drug — drug-affected behaviors.”