Experts Say Gun Alone Doesn't Justify Deadly Force In Fatal Shooting Of Florida Airman

FILE - This photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, shows Senior Airman Roger Fortson in a Dec. 24, 2019, photo. (U.S. Air Force via AP, File)
FILE - This photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, shows Senior Airman Roger Fortson in a Dec. 24, 2019, photo. (U.S. Air Force via AP, File)
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On the afternoon of May 3, Roger Fortson opened the door of his Florida apartment with a gun in his hand and was immediately shot six times by a sheriff’s deputy responding to a complaint about an argument.

Fortson's supporters point to the deputy's rapid decision to open fire and his mere presence at the apartment — where the Air Force senior airman was apparently alone and FaceTiming with his girlfriend — as proof that it was a blatantly unjustified killing and the latest tragedy involving a Black American being shot at home by law enforcement. Authorities, meanwhile, have seized on Fortson holding a gun when he answered the door to cast the shooting as a clear-cut case of self-defense for a deputy confronted with a split-second, life-or-death decision.

Investigators will consider these factors when deciding whether to charge the deputy in a case that also reflects the realities officers face every day in a country where millions of people carry guns, including in Florida, one of the largest gun ownership states.

Policing experts say Fortson simply holding a gun when he opened the door wasn't enough justification to use deadly force, but investigators will also have to consider what information the deputy knew when he responded and whether Fortson showed any behavioral indication that he posed a threat. They also say the proliferation of legal and illegal firearms is forcing officers throughout the country to have to decide faster than ever what constitutes a deadly threat.

“The speed of the shooting is pretty intense. It’s happening very, very fast,” Ian Adams, an assistant professor who studies criminology at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, said after watching the deputy's body camera video of Fortson's shooting.

“The presence of a gun enhances the risk. But mere presence is not at all justification for using deadly force,” Adams said.

The redacted video released Thursday by the Okaloosa County sheriff in response to allegations raised by attorneys for Fortson's family shows the deputy speaking to a woman outside the Fort Walton Beach apartment complex who described someone hearing an argument.

The deputy, whose name and race haven't been released, bangs on Fortson’s door, pauses, then knocks again, yelling that he’s from the sheriff’s office. Fortson eventually answers the door while holding what appears to be a gun by his side pointed at the ground. Within a few seconds, the deputy shoots Fortson six times, only then yelling for him to drop his weapon.

Sheriff Eric Aden said the deputy acted in self-defense, and he rejected assertions that the deputy was at the wrong apartment. Ben Crump, an attorney for Fortson’s family, said they remain adamant that the deputy went to the wrong unit because Fortson had been home alone and on a Facetime call with his girlfriend.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating.

Adams said beyond the body camera footage there has to be some behavioral indication that a person intends to cause deadly harm with their gun.

“We also live in a nation with more guns than people. If the mere presence of a gun were the standard for reasonable use of deadly force, we would be awash with police shootings,” he said.

The increase in gun ownership has changed policing in ways, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on critical issues in policing.

“This is a tragedy on so many levels, for everyone — for the family and for the officer. Guns accelerate decision-making and that’s the challenge here,” he said.

In a statement Friday, Crump focused on the deputy's quick use of deadly force, and the lack of a verbal command for Fortson to drop his weapon until after the deputy shot him.

But experts say officers aren't required to issue commands or warnings whenever they use deadly force. David Klinger, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who is also a former police officer, said the standard is to give a warning when it’s feasible.

“But if pausing to give a warning or a verbal command is going to increase the risk of a deadly threat, then it isn’t feasible,” he said.

Scott Lacey, a former Air Force Special Operations Command officer who served in the same squadron as Fortson, said he believes Fortson’s shooting was unjustified.

“When he just opens the door, sees him with a gun and unloads six rounds on the senior airman, to me that just screams unjust right away,” said Lacey, who spent time as an Arizona state trooper after leaving the military. “The airman didn’t raise his gun and showed no kind of hostile intent.”

Lacey responded to a Facebook post from Air Force leaders that called for people on base to support Fortson’s family while maintaining professionalism. Lacey called the shooting unjustified and urged the commander to instead, “Take a stand and do something," adding that he'd feel unsafe with the sheriff's department at his doorstep.

It's not the first time the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office has come under scrutiny for its use of force.

LaTanya Griffin filed a federal lawsuit against the department in August alleging that deputies used a battering ram to enter her home while serving a search warrant in 2019. Griffin, who had been asleep naked, was ordered at gunpoint to walk outside and remain nude in front of officers and the public, she said. She was never arrested or charged with a crime.

In court papers, lawyers for the sheriff’s office said the deputies’ actions were consistent with “established, reasonable, and generally accepted police procedure.” The litigation is ongoing.

“I think the Department of Justice needs to take a look at what’s happening with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office,” said Kevin Anderson, a lawyer for Griffin.

In another incident six months ago, an Okaloosa County deputy reacted to the sound of a falling acorn hitting his patrol vehicle by firing multiple rounds at the vehicle, where a handcuffed Black man sat inside.

After hearing the deputy yell “shots fired” and “I'm hit," his supervisor also fired at the vehicle. The man inside survived the barrage rattled but unscathed.

Internal investigators found that the supervisor's actions were “objectively reasonable” because she was acting to protect the other deputy in what she believed was an “imminent and immediate danger of death.” But the report found that the deputy who initially screamed “shots fired” hadn't acted reasonably in firing his gun. He resigned before the investigation was completed.

In her interviews with investigators, the supervisor mentioned that deputies had been through a lot in recent weeks, including the killing of a deputy who was responding to a domestic violence call and the involvement of another in an on-duty shooting.

The shooting of Fortson came just days after four members of a U.S. Marshals Service fugitive task force were killed while serving a warrant in North Carolina. Some officer groups have suggested such killings could affect how officers perceive threats.

“I don’t think the presence of previous shootings is ever going to be justification," Adams said. “There is no world where officers don’t encounter a firearm risk. Officers swim in risk. But risk alone is not cause for using force, let alone deadly force.”


Associated Press writer Tara Copp in Washington contributed to this report.