ST. LOUIS — A St. Louis police officer who is criminally accused of shooting an unarmed man multiple times in the back will enter a plea of not guilty, the officer’s attorney, Scott Rosenblum, said Friday.
Officer Matthew EerNisse, 26, was charged Thursday with first-degree assault and armed criminal action, a rare case of a police officer facing felonies related to an on-duty shooting. The charges stem from the August 2018 shooting of a 21-year-old man who, police say, was being chased after he was spotted in a stolen car earlier that night.
“From my review of the case up to this point, I feel this officer was in fear of his life and his actions were justified,” Rosenblum said Friday.
The charges follow a review by the department’s Force Investigation Unit, said Maurice Foxworth, an adviser with the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Officer.
“The heart of the investigation comes from the statements of other police officers who were there and saw what happened,” Foxworth said.
The officer is accused of first shooting at the man as he climbed a backyard gate behind a north St. Louis home in the 5500 block of Chamberlain Avenue. The man was treated for gunshot wounds and has since been released from the hospital, police said. The man has not been charged in connection to the night he was shot, prosecutors say.
EerNisse remains an employee of the St. Louis police department on unpaid suspension.
Court documents say the chase began when a police officer saw the man driving a stolen Ford Mustang near 4949 Natural Bridge Avenue. The officer tried to pull the car over, but the man didn’t stop, starting a chase, the documents say.
EerNisse soon joined the pursuit, which ended in the 1100 block of Clara Avenue when the man lost control of the Mustang and ran from the car, according to the documents.
EerNisse ran after him to a backyard and shot at the man as he scaled a gate boarded with plywood, charging documents say. When the man made it over the gate, the officer is accused of continuing to fire at him through the plywood. An investigation concluded it would have been impossible for EerNisse to see the man through the wood, court documents allege.
At the time of the shooting, Police Chief John Hayden said the driver had reached toward his waistband as he ran away. Charging documents say the man had not been seen with a gun at any time during the pursuit, and police never found a weapon near him or in the car.
The officer who wrote the probable cause statement says EerNisse is a danger to the driver and the community.
The officer’s bond is set at $50,000, and he is not allowed to have a firearm, according to court records.
The St. Louis Police Officers’ Association posted the officer’s bail but is not covering Rosenblum’s fees.
The union makes decisions on whether to cover an officer’s legal fees during criminal matters on a “case-by-case basis,” said Jeff Roorda, business manager.
Rosenblum is not a union attorney, he added.
Charges in connection to on-duty police shootings are rare. There is no readily available data tracking charges in nonfatal police shootings, Phillip Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University who tracks police shooting said.
But in fatal on-duty police shootings, Stinson said 107 nonfederal law enforcement officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter since 2015. Of those, 38 have been convicted of a crime.
There are have been at least 950 fatal police shootings nationally a year since 2015, according to a Washington Post analysis of media reports.
Christine Byers of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.