Lawyers for the family of John Elifritz, who was shot and killed by police last year inside a Southeast Portland homeless shelter, are seeking sanctions against city attorneys for what they called the “extremely belated’’ disclosure of dozens of additional videos that captured the shooting.
In mid-March, the city shared videos from within CityTeam Ministries with the Elifritz legal team as part of discovery in the family’s pending wrongful death case. Police say they shot Elifritz when he lunged at officers with a knife.
Though a deadline in the civil case was extended to July 5 to share evidence in the case, lawyers for the city withheld 47 additional videos of the shooting for another month, according to lawyers representing members of Elifritz’s family. The family’s lawyers filed a motion in federal court Wednesday, seeking sanctions against the city for the delay.
One of the withheld videos contains “the clearest evidence’’ that a barrier of two rows of chairs separated police officers and Elifritz at the moment he was shot and shows the shooting from the officers’ vantage point, according to the family’s lawyers.
“Then officers are shown moving the rows of chairs out of the way so that it appears, after the fact and misleadingly, that there was an unobstructed pathway between the corpse on the floor and the shooting officers at the moment of the shooting,’’ attorneys Timothy Volpert and Carlton Odim wrote to the court.
Not having that video footage available when the Elifritz attorneys questioned at least seven officers involved in the shooting and other police supervisors for depositions was prejudicial to their case, they argued.
“This video evidence is critical to the question whether, with the barrier of two rows of chairs between Elifritz and the officers, the officers had a reasonable fear of being harmed by Elifritz at the moment they fatally shot Elifritz,” they wrote. “The video evidence withheld by Defendants is critical information independent of the evidence given by the shooting officers in depositions and post-incident investigative interviews regarding their relative positions.’’
The 47 new videos recently turned over to the Elifritz legal team are among evidence that hasn’t been made public and is under a protective order, according to the family’s lawyers.
Barbara Elifritz and the couple’s daughter, Stormy, the representatives of his estate, sued the city and Portland police in May 2018, alleging police stormed into the CityTeam Ministries shelter on April 7, 2018, with AR-15 rifles and a police dog and used excessive force against Elifritz. His family says John Elifritz was experiencing a mental health crisis and posed no threat to the officers.
John Elifritz, a suspect in a carjacking, had burst into the shelter on Southeast Grand Avenue armed with a knife, police said.
VIDEOS THAT POLICE PREVIOUSLY RELEASED:
The Elifritz legal team asks a judge to strike the city’s motion to throw out the case. The lawyers also ask a judge to allow them to amend their original complaint based on the new video evidence and have the city pay for their costs and attorneys’ fees for the depositions they already took of the seven officers and other police supervisors without the benefit of the withheld videos.
The city’s lawyers contend the late disclosure isn’t prejudicial because they show another camera angle as previously produced videos, according to court papers.
Deputy City Attorney J. Scott Moede said the city would respond in a formal court filing soon to the motion for sanctions.
The family’s lawyers say the new videos bolster their case.
“It should go without saying that it is not for Defendants to decide whether and how these videos potentially support Plaintiff’s claims and theories,’’ Volpert wrote. “It should also be plainly apparent that different camera angles can be critical in determining what happened, especially in the context of the use of deadly force, as is indeed true here – the late-disclosed video includes footage from the shooting officers’ vantage point and is hugely significant.’’
The family’s suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the city, as well as a request to order the city to halt its alleged policies and practices that encourage the use of unreasonable force, particularly against people suffering from mental health challenges.
In response, the city said Elifritz’s behavior — his failure to drop his knife after repeated police commands and his decision to lunge at officers — led police to shoot and kill him. They’ve argued in court papers that the 48-year-old’s death was his fault alone.
The city also cited Elifritz’s use of methamphetamine that day, his carjacking of an SUV that he then drove dangerously and the cutting of his neck while he was moving erratically around the crowded shelter as examples of his reckless actions.
“City defendants are not at fault in the actions pled by plaintiff because the death of Mr. Elifritz was the sole and exclusive fault of Mr. Elifritz,” the city’s response said.
— Maxine Bernstein
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