If Police Kill Because Citizens Are Afraid, That's a Problem

Fatal shootings in Portland and Brooklyn demonstrate how fear pushes officers to escalate encounters.


On Saturday evening in Portland, Oregon, a pack of police cornered and fatally shot a man who apparently was wielding and stabbing himself with a knife in a homeless shelter. Observers have been questioning whether the cops rushed too quickly to open fire.

The man, since identified by family as John Elifritz, 48, was suspected of involvement in a reported carjacking that evening. Police followed him into a homeless shelter, where witnesses say he was cutting himself and otherwise behaving erratically. He had a criminal history and drug issues.

The man's shooting was captured on film and posted on social media. Watch below (warning: it's intense):

There's an awful lot of cops in there, and their behavior absolutely magnifies the terror of an already scary situation. Whatever "de-escalation" looks like, it's certainly not a dozen cops screaming at somebody. (Meanwhile, Mayor Ted Wheeler is calling on citizens to demand Portland City Council fund more than 90 new police officers for the apparent purpose of busting up homeless camps.)

The shooting also provides an important insight into eyewitness responses. A bystander who captured the incident on video says he thinks the police were justified and that Elifritz "lunged" at an officer before they shot him. That's not what the video shows. The man was staggering a little bit and was nowhere near the officers before they began open firing. Police say he waved his knife at a police dog on the scene, which also isn't apparent in the video.

But he clearly scared the hell out of a lot of people, including the witness. And on the basis of fear, some people will accept any response from police.

Just last week, some New York cops killed a man who had been carrying a small metal pipe. The police shot Saheed Vassell almost immediately after arriving on scene. Security footage showed him walking up to people and pointing the pipe at them as though it were a gun, these people's fear is certainly real and justifiable.

Neighborhood police knew that Vassell was bipolar and apparently had helped him out several times and taken him to a psychiatric hospital. They had also, according to The New York Times, handed him 120 court summonses for offenses over the years. But the officers who responded to the 911 calls were not the neighborhood police who dealt with Vassell and knew about his problems. His shooting was not captured on police body cameras.

I am not here to downplay how scary it must have been to be in either of these situations surrounding these two men. But when we justify police shootings based on fear of what might happen versus actual identifiable threats, the end result is that we end up giving police permission to shoot and kill citizens just entirely on the basis of being afraid (or saying they were afraid).

We see this play out again and again in police killings. A Sacramento officer screamed "Gun!" over and over as he and his partner opened fire on Stephon Clark. Clark had been holding a phone, not a gun. It happened in St. Anthony, Minnesota, when a police officer panicked at a traffic stop and opened fire on Philando Castile after Castile told him he had a gun legally in his possession.

Because we give police the power and authority to kill people, it's of utmost importance to hold officers to a higher standard than merely "fear." The fact that an eyewitness in Portland justifies a shooting by how scared he personally felt goes a long way toward explaining how this keeps happening.

NEXT: How to Sniff Out Fake News

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  1. “I am not here to downplay how scary it must have been to be in either of these situations surrounding these two men. But when we justify police shootings based on fear of what might happen versus actual identifiable threats, the end result is that we end up giving police permission to shoot and kill citizens just entirely on the basis of being afraid (or saying they were afraid).”

    Blame how the laws are written for this one. Since your not allowed to use force to defend your self unless you are in fear for your life.

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    2. Please see Tennessee v Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985). It is the Supreme Court case that addresses shoot to stop. The killing of a young black man. The Supremes ruled it was an illegal taking of property, his life. Human life as property; why does that ring so distasteful?

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  2. Why the fuck to cops feel the need to resort to lethal force against suicidal individuals? In what universe does this make sense?

    1. Ima guess because a suicidal individual has nothing to lose.

      1. If they aren’t a threat to anyone but themselves, why would that matter?

        1. Exactly; see Tennessee V Garner 1985

    2. It makes perfect sense if you admit he was never going to be anything but a broken headcase and a drain on society.

      1. Police officers should definitely be encouraged to summarily execute people who they’ve determined society doesn’t need. There’s no way that could ever go wrong.

        1. It could be done in a very efficient manner. One might call it a “final solution “.

        2. …and nothing of value was lost.

        3. Seems to be a recurring theme throughout history. No reason to think it won’t happen again.

        4. Well, he’s half right. If these crazy fucks were off the streets a lot of crime would never happen. One of the reasons crime is down is because a lot of criminals are already behind bars. That may be what some of them deserve, but I bet quite a few of them are just locked up because they’re mental. They often don’t do well in the wild if they want to. So, they need our help. That will cost a lot of money. Currently, that money is being spent on other things. So, instead of clean sheets and tlc, they get homeless shelters, or the street, and regular social interaction with the popo. Predictable results follow.

        5. You know who else* thought the police should summarily execute people who they’ve determined society doesn’t need?

          I’m a little disappointed it’s taken this long for someone to make this joke.

          1. Trump? Okay, not summary execution but knock’em around a bit. Soften them up for interrogation. Big league.

      2. broken headcase and a drain on society.

        I think it sounds better in the original German:

        kaputter Kopfbedeckung und ein Abfluss der Gesellschaft.

    3. They had to protect him from using deadly force on himself, duh.

      1. So they did it for him???

    4. It makes sense in the universe where the police have two, and only two, jobs. Job number one is officer safety. That means that any threat, real or perceived, must be met with deadly force or the officer risks losing their job. Job number two is compliance. That means that officers must force people to obey, and kill those who don’t. Otherwise they risk losing their job.

      That’s the universe we live in.

      So if a suicidal person fails to obey, and makes Officer Friendly scared by holding a knife, all cops better open fire else they might find themselves unemployed.

      Deescalation is NOT an option. Obey or die. There is no excuse to not obey. Do what you are told or face death.

      1. Cops don’t have time to waste by calming someone down and deescalating the situation. That means much needed revenue will be both wasted and not obtained. These men and women need to be out there giving out citations. To keep the government running.

        1. Whoah, and snap! They don’t have the time? Shoot speeders on sight, we’ll sell the cars? There’s a pot plant in that yard, shoot the occupant and we’ll sell the house. You know, I started this out in honor of sarcasmic’s great, funny, insightful rant, then I realized, the “authorities” are doing close to that all over the country. Michigan has experienced a swell of house and property confiscations re: a pot plant. A plant. In the land of the free. Make it so… freedom. Start with from legal overeaching by the police. Vote, for sure..Run for office..contact your representatives. The American political system is not the only one around. I see a barter/cash system beginning all over. But the American political system can be uncorrupted, or at least corruption can be swayed to the most benefit for the most people; you know, like it is supposed to be.

    5. Isn’t Oregon one of the states that pioneered the passing of assisted suicide laws?

      These fine heroes in blue were just assisting the poor guy.

  3. Obviously the solution is requiring cops to be hopped up on amphetamines.

    1. The Germans were all, every one taking mostly methamphetamine during their grand blitz. Then, when they hit the Russian front and had to be still, they folded, faded and failed…just a thought

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  5. The worship of cops in this country by the average middle class suburbanite is really nauseating. The decades of cop shows in which the cops are angelic heroes has no doubt helped ingrain this attitude in people. But I think the lack of compassion and othering of those that do not, or cannot, subscribe to the picket fence mentality is just as much to blame.

    1. othering

      Live through a grease fire.

      1. This new Eddie fella seems to be a real prince of a human being. People with mental health problems should be murdered! People who use words Eddie doesn’t like should be horribly and painfully disfigured! Say what you want about the tenets of Catholic theocracy, at least the other Eddie isn’t an angry piece of shit.

        1. He sounds like a soulless asshole. He’d make a great politician.

        2. He might need clean sheets and some tlc. Too bad.

      2. OT: Speaking of hot greasy onion rings.

        Pretty good amateur blogger from Boulder CO.

        1. Pretty sorry amateur whose web site requires javascript just to display words on the screen.

      3. CMB; yeah, I was born in 50; I remember how we were all told how it is, then it became quickly clear that “how it is” never was. the “middle class suburbanite” you refer to is who? All of us? Our friends, neighbors and loved ones? Uncles, brothers, fathers and sons. Mothers and daughters and aunts, all, as are the police officers where you live.
        Compassion; well said

    2. Crime is way the fuck down. Crimes with actual victims that is. The average person will never be robbed, mugged, raped, or otherwise a victim of a crime. So they have no fucking clue as to what it means to be a crime victim. They don’t find out that cops don’t care. That cops only care about victimless crimes that they can easily prove with a bag of weed or data on a hard drive.

      If criminal law was limited to crimes with actual victims, I would venture to guess that 90% of the police officers in this country would be fired.

      And the ones that were left still wouldn’t do dick.

      1. Indeed. My neighborhood, including my place, got hit by a string of burglaries over the course of a few nights (it’s largely inhabited by college students, and the burglars hit during Spring Break). When I reported it, the cops gave me a sheaf of pamphlets on things like trimming shrubs to eliminate hiding places for burglars; otherwise, they showed no apparent interest in investigating, and went back to their usual business of setting up marijuana stings 290 feet from schools.

        1. They didn’t want to poke around the crime scene? See if they could find any evidence on you, I mean, the thief? I hope, at least, they ran your name to see if it hit.

          1. I hope, at least, they ran your name to see if it hit.

            I’m sure they remembered to do that. “New professionalism,” and all that.

          2. About the only thing you can count on when calling the cops for help after being a victim of a crime is for them to run you for warrants.

            1. Yeah, and running your name for warrants has gotta be illegal. No probable cause. Period.

  6. The guy in New York look like he had a gun. an undeniable fact.
    The guy stabbing himself they could have tazed him if tazers are legal there

    1. Tazers are only for when you really want to shoot a citizen but aren’t quite sure you can get away with it. Also pain compliance or maybe you’re having a bad day. Just say the magic words, “stop resisting” and you have CYA.

    2. Tasers are legal but you should see the mandates on usage not to mention the bitching about the way police use tasers.

      1. “the bitching about the way police use tasers.”

        Bitching about it is sometimes warranted, but I would be much more willing to go to bat for a cop who unnecessarily tazed somebody than shot them. Our criticisms as a society are disproportionate just like the actions of some police. It’s not all or nothing “cops are faultless heroes” or “cops are minority murderers.”

        I know tazing also has some tactical limitations, but I think there are other possible non-lethal choices. One of the dozen cops in that room could have de-escalated the situation. They had hundreds of years of combined experience and a physical barrier between themselves and the homeless guy. The bystander effect took root, and the gung-ho guy became the leader. Once one of them shot it sounded like popcorn. Like a group of fish or birds moving as a cohesive unit. Weird group psychology.

      2. Tasing was supposed to be an alternative to a bullet. Now it’s a tool for compliance turture.

  7. Police kill because the police are afraid. And taught to be afraid.

    1. Don’t forget “gun, gun, gun” almost as if some magic words to make an execution legal. Not good, not necessary.

  8. Homeless man executed by scared cops. Jeez, that could have been done differently. Way, far and away differently.

  9. >>But when we justify police shootings based on fear of what might happen versus actual identifiable threats, the end result is that we end up giving police permission to shoot and kill citizens just entirely on the basis of being afraid (or saying they were afraid).

    Well, sure. It has to be a well-founded fear, subject to a reasonable person test, but that is absolutely the basis. It is the same right of self-defense that you and I have.

  10. Please see Tennessee V Garner 1985; you’ll like it

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  12. I don’t think the Police kill because citizens are afraid. I think the Police kill because the Police are afraid. Which means I am a lot more afraid of being killed by a Policeman than a crazed person or criminal.

  13. Irrational fear is a very common currency today. When it is used to justify homicide, things unravel. How the f*&k could those cops feel threatened by an old man with a knife, standing 30 feet from them? The guy(s) that fired were more unhinged than scared.

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