We still don’t have a grand jury ruling regarding the case of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African American shot by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., this summer, nor feedback on whether Brown’s civil rights were violated by a cop many believe targeted him simply for being black and then shot him, unarmed, while he posed no threat to the officer. Now, another shooting of an African American teen in St. Louis is bringing up the same questions in a community that still hasn’t healed from the original incident, and it’s leading some to wonder if the state’s new gun laws may make this a frequent occurrence.
The victim has been identified by his family as Vonderrit Myers Jr., an 18-year-old who an off duty police officer moonlighting in uniform as private security claims shot at him after he chased Myers and two other young men. The officer reportedly stated that based on the way one of the young men was running, holding at his waistband of his pants, he believed that the young man had a gun.
“As [the officer] exited the car, the gentlemen took off running. He was able to follow one of them before he lost him and then found him again as the guy jumped out of some bushes across the street,” said Police Lt Col Alfred Adkins, according to The Guardian. “The officer approached, they got into a struggle, they ended up into a gangway, at which time the young man pulled a weapon and shots were fired. The officer returned fire and unfortunately the young man was killed.”
According to the police, the officer in question fired 17 shots.
Myers’ family questions the police’s version of events, saying the teen had no gun, and although he did have an ankle monitor on for a gun charge, he was going out for a sandwich, which, according to his lawyer, was allowed. “He was unarmed,” [his cousin] Teyonna Myers told St. Louis Today. “He had a sandwich in his hand, and they thought it was a gun. It’s like Michael Brown all over again.”
Mistrust of official police accounts are understandable after months of back and forth over the Brown case, where police “official reports” differ drastically from the video and eyewitness accounts of events. Also understandable are questions over whether 17 shots are really necessary when trying to subdue a potential subject, or if police are no longer trained to try to disarm versus kill.
But there are even more complex issues popping up from this latest event, primarily surrounding the role of police themselves, and who officers are meant to protect. The idea of police for hire as private security is a controversial one, especially when those officers are using the uniforms and accoutrements of official duty. The message being sent is a clear one: the police in fact work for whomever hires them, to protect the property of those with the most assets. When a police officer is off duty, do they still carry the weight and authority of being on duty, and are people obligated to obey their orders? At what point does the entire police force become in essence hired guards for those with means, to protect them from those without?
Three teens gathered is not a crime. Running from an officer who happens to be driving by in a car isn’t a crime either, especially in light of the mistrust between civilians and police in this area. Meanwhile, this officer, who was not on duty with the police at the time but acting as a professional security guard, chased them, and decided that Myers might be armed, and pursued him with that in mind.
Being armed isn’t illegal, either. In fact, thanks to a legislature that overrode Governor Jay Nixon’s veto, guns can be obtained and carried anywhere as long as you are at least 19-years-old. While Myers wasn’t quite of age yet, it’s hard to believe that the officer in question could determine his age within a few months while he was standing in the dark.
There are obviously still many questions unanswered in the case of Myers (and, frankly, in the case of Michael Brown, too). Perhaps the biggest question that must be addressed, however, is whether new gun laws in the state mean that officers (or armed private security guards) will assume that all potential suspects — even if there is no actual crime being committed — are armed and dangerous, and respond with force because of it. Because literally, the lives of young black men in the state are depending on that answer.