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After Fatal Off-Duty Police Shooting, Investigation And Reflection Begin

Protest at Shaw and Klemm 10-8-14 re Vonderrit Myers
Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio

The St. Louis circuit attorney is pledging a thorough and transparent investigation into the shooting death of 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers. Myers was shot and killed Wednesday night in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis by an off-duty police officer.

Police gave this account of what happened: Myers fired a gun at the officer, who was working a secondary job for a private security company. Evidence at the scene showed Myers fired his weapon, a stolen 9mm pistol, three times before it jammed. The shooting came after a foot pursuit that began after the officer tried to stop Myers and two other young men. The officer reported struggling with Myers before Myers pulled his weapon.  

The shooting is the first to take place since the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department implemented its Force Investigation Unit on Sept. 9. The new unit will investigate all officer-involved shootings in which a suspect is killed or injured. 

Previously, Circuit Attorney Jenneifer Joyce only reviewed police-involved shootings if the police investigation determined there was evidence the officer had committed a crime. The new process means she will review use-of-force  cases regardless of any possible criminal charges.

Joyce said her review will go far beyond just reading police reports.

"I’m not going to read a summary of someone else’s investigation," she said. "I want to see all the evidence, I want to see all the witness statements and, if I want to, I’m going to go out and talk to the witnesses. I’m going to go to the scene. I’m going to make sure that I’ve looked at everything fresh that the police looked at in making that police report."

Additionally, Joyce is bringing in a federal prosecutor to help review the Myers case to get as many eyes on the investigation material as possible.

"I’m independent from the police department, the U.S. Attorney is independent from me. We’re all independent from the mayor," Joyce said.  "The more of that that we have, I think the public will take confidence in that."

The yet-unnamed federal prosecutor will be able to look at possible violations of both U.S. and state law, Joyce said. He or she can request additional investigative resources as well, although Joyce said it was premature to know if that would be needed.

Joyce did not have a timeframe for when her review would be complete because it depends on the police investigation. She asked the community for patience.

Community response

At a news conference Thursday morning, the coalition seeking the arrest of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Mike Brown asked Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to form a blue ribbon commission that would examine excessive use of force by law enforcement across the state.

Nasheed and Vonderrit Myers Sr
Credit Joseph Leahy/St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (center) and the father of Vonderrit Myers (left) at an October 9 press conference.

"People are angry,” said State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed. "They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired and we’re going to have to bridge the gap between law enforcement and community." She called the events that led to Myers' death "racial profiling turned deadly."

Repeated Promises Of Transparency

In a Facebook post this afternoon, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay thanked Joyce for agreeing to bring in the federal help. He also thanked Richard Callahan,  the head of the U.S. Attorney's office of the Eastern District of Missouri, U.S. attorney  for agreeing to help.

"I believe that it will add an extra layer of independence to a policy that is already open and transparent," the post concludes.

The mayor repeated those themes in a later interview. 

"It's my responsibility that we provide the highest level of confidence and and transparency in everything we do," Slay said. "When there's a police-involved shooting, it's important that the public has confidence that what we say and how we are handling things is accurate."

Family members and friends are already questioning the accuracy of the police statements. 

"There is a culture of cover-up in the police department, and the first thing is to protect your own, and we see it as a racist policy," said Minister Akbar Muhammad with the Nation of Islam.  "I’m not happy that the police chief would come out and make statements that were given to him by his officers such as this man (Myers) turned and shot at him three times and there was a weapon found and shells from another gun."

Attorney Jerryl Christmas said St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson’s initial description of the Aug. 21 police killing ofKajiemePowell in north St. Louis was also misleading. “We know with the Powell shooting that the police initially indicated that individual was coming at them with an overhand motion with a knife. We found out from video that that was a lie.” 

Dotson defended the work of his investigators.

"There is certainly the possibility of new information coming to light. That's why they're called investigations," he said. "If we knew all the answers instantaneously, we wouldn't have to do an investigation." 

Myers' Past

Court records show, and prosecutors confirmed, that Myers was charged in June with carrying a concealed weapon without a permit and resisting arrest. He was a passenger in a vehicle that fled when police tried to pull it over for a city ordinance violation. After the vehicle crashed near Saint Louis University, Myers was one of several who fled. As a condition of his bond, he was wearing an electronic ankle bracelet. A hearing in the case was set for November.

Joyce, the prosecutor, said those charges will have no bearing on how she looks at the case  involving his shooting death at the hands of the off-duty police officer.

"It's irrelevant to what happened last night," she said. "We're going to be looking at the four corners of what happened last night, and not making our decision on something that happened in the past."

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Follow Joseph Leahy on Twitter: @JOEMIKELEAHY

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.