Eighteen-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr. died at police hands in St. Louis, Missouri, Wednesday night, setting off near-immediate protests at the site of the shooting just days before a national weekend of protest was planned in the wake of the death of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson.
Cops say Myers fired a gun. Relatives said he was not holding a gun; only a sandwich. Either way, community members are questioning why the off-duty cop stopped Myers and his friends in the first place, escalating the incident to gunfire. The unnamed officer was working a second job as a security officer when he approached Myers and his friends in his vehicle marked with the company name Hi-Tech security. One of the three black males started to run, prompting the officer to make a U turn. After he did so, all three men began to run, prompting the officer to chase them. He said one of them was holding up his pants in a way that suggested he had a gun, according to CNN.
When the officer caught up with the teens, he told them they were under arrest. But the officer says Myers engaged the officer in a physical altercation, during which Myers’ sweatshirt was pulled off, revealing a gun underneath, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson told reporters. Dotson said a 9mm Ruger pistol was recovered at the scene. Myers allegedly then fired his gun three times, causing the officer to return fire with 17 shots. The officer was not injured, and has been placed on administrative leave while the case was investigated.
His cousin Teyonna Myers told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “He had a sandwich in his hand and they thought it was a gun.” It is not clear, however, that anyone who witnessed the shooting has come forward to the media. Relatives of Myers said they were told by those who were with Myers prior to the incident and witnesses that he had been coming out of a store where he purchased a sandwich.
If nothing else, community mistrust in the police is at an all-time high, putting the effectiveness of the police force at particular risk. Just days after Michael Brown’s death, the shooting of another black man in St. Louis, Missouri, was caught on video and outraged the community. As St. Louis Alderman Antonio French tweeted:
Last night again highlighted the broken trust between community and police in St. Louis. This is a dangerous situation for our city.
— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) October 9, 2014
Police officers in the United States are empowered to meet deadly force with deadly force. So if Myers fired his gun in the course of his law enforcement duties, that would likely provide legal justification for the officer’s actions, even if the incident could have been prevented at an earlier phase. Generally, police are considered to retain their police powers 24 hours a day, whether they are on or off duty, and the legal lines are even more blurred in the common circumstance when cops have second jobs as security officers. In 2011, an off-duty officer working a second security job was acquitted for shooting a man in the neck. He thought he had a gun, but it was a cell phone.