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News / Nation & World

What to know about airman Roger Fortson’s fatal shooting by a Florida sheriff’s deputy

By TERRY SPENCER and TARA COPP, TERRY SPENCER and TARA COPP, Associated Press
Published: May 29, 2024, 8:25am

The fatal shooting of Roger Fortson by a Florida sheriff’s deputy when the Air Force senior airman opened his door armed with a handgun pointed down happened almost a month ago, but the information released so far hasn’t clarified why the officer was directed to his apartment.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office has released the deputy’s body camera video of the May 3 shooting and redacted 911 calls and reports, but not the deputy’s name. The agency also has not said if the deputy has made any statement to investigators. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating, but since its probe is ongoing, it won’t comment. Fortson was Black. The deputy’s race has not been released.

Fortson, 23, had no criminal record, and there is no evidence he was involved in the disturbance that led to the deputy being called to the apartment complex. Fortson was alone in his apartment, and his girlfriend has said she and Fortson were having a normal video conversation when the deputy began pounding on the door.

Ben Crump, the family’s attorney, has called the shooting “an unjustifiable killing,” and Matt Gaetz, the area’s staunchly Republican congressman, said Fortson did nothing wrong.

Here are some of the key issues surrounding the case:

WHY WAS THE DEPUTY AT FORTSON’S APARTMENT?

Just before 4:25 p.m. on May 3, a female employee of the Elan Apartments in the Florida Panhandle community of Fort Walton Beach called the sheriff’s office, saying a resident had reported a loud argument that had been going on for 20 minutes. It was said that it “sounded like it was getting physical” and that “it happens often.”

She gave Fortson’s fourth-floor apartment as the location of the disturbance, but he was home alone. At the operator’s suggestion, the employee walked near Fortson’s unit and reported that she didn’t hear anything.

The deputy arrived about three minutes later, according to body camera video. He went into the office, where a man directed him to the parking lot. A woman met him there. On video she sounds like the employee who told the operator she would meet the deputy. Her face has been blurred out in the video.

“Are they fighting or something?” the deputy asked.

She responded that there was an apparent argument in one of the apartments and it “is getting out of hand.”

He asked which apartment.

“I don’t know. So I’m not sure,” she responded. She then told the deputy that two weeks earlier she heard someone yelling and cursing in the apartment, followed by a noise that sounded like a slap, but she hadn’t reported it.

The deputy again asked which apartment, and this time the woman gave Fortson’s apartment number. The deputy repeated the number. She confirmed the apartment was on the fourth floor and gave the deputy directions.

Fortson lived alone and had no visitors at the time of the shooting. That has raised questions over whether the deputy was directed to the wrong apartment. County 911 dispatch records show deputies had never been called to his apartment before. However deputies had been called to another fourth-floor apartment 10 times in the previous eight months, including once for a family disturbance.

A 911 call made by a resident apparently just after the fatal shooting referenced arguing between a man and woman in an apartment where a child lives.

Crump has said he believes police were sent to the wrong apartment. It’s not clear if he is referencing the apartment where police had previously been called.

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN THE DEPUTY ARRIVED AT FORTSON’S DOOR?

The deputy arrived outside Fortson’s door less than three minutes after he got to the complex. He listened silently for 20 seconds outside, but no voices inside are heard on his body camera.

He then pounded on the door, but didn’t identify himself. He then moved to the side of the door, about 5 feet away (1.5 meters). He waited 15 seconds before pounding on the door again. This time he yelled, “Sheriff’s office — open the door!” He again moved to the side.

Less then 10 seconds later, he moved back in front of the door and pounded again, announcing himself once more.

Fortson opened the door, his legally purchased gun in his right hand. It was at his side, pointing to the ground. The deputy said “Step back” then immediately began firing. Fortson fell backward onto the floor.

Only then did the deputy yell, “Drop the gun!”

Fortson replied, “It’s over there.”

The deputy called for paramedics, but Fortson died a short time later at the hospital.

WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE SHOOTING?

In the hours after the shooting, the sheriff’s office issued a short press release that offered few details. It said the deputy had responded to a call about a disturbance and had heard it himself, which is not corroborated by the body camera audio.

“He reacted in self defense after he encountered a 23-year old man armed with a gun and after the deputy had identified himself as law enforcement,” the statement said.

The shooting gained little media attention for several days. It wasn’t until Fortson’s family questioned how an airman with no record could be shot by a deputy in his doorway and hired Crump that it gained national notice.

“One thing is clear from the body cam and should be stated unequivocally: Roger did not deserve to die. He did nothing wrong,” Rep. Gaetz said in a statement.

Hundreds attended Fortson’s funeral near his family home in suburban Atlanta, with fellow airmen filing past his flag-draped coffin as they paid their respect.

The apartment where Fortson lived is about 8 miles (13 kilometers) from Hurlburt Field, where Fortson was assigned to the 4th Special Operations Squadron as a special missions aviator serving on an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship. One of his roles was to load the plane’s 30mm and 105mm cannons during battles.

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