US

Florida Sheriff Releases Footage in Police Killing of Airman Roger Fortson


Under mounting pressure to offer a justification for the fatal police shooting of a U.S. Air Force senior airman in his own apartment last week, a Florida sheriff on Thursday released body camera footage of the deadly encounter.

The footage shows Senior Airman Roger Fortson, 23, answering the door of his apartment in the Florida Panhandle and immediately being shot by a deputy from the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office. The video also shows that Airman Fortson was holding a gun, and the authorities have maintained that the deputy “reacted in self-defense.”

The release of the footage came amid growing questions from the airman’s family and their lawyers — including Ben Crump, who has represented the family of George Floyd — who had accused the deputy of entering the wrong apartment, of not knocking or announcing himself and of bursting through the door.

Some of those accusations appeared to be undercut by the body camera video. The lawyers said they were based on information from Airman Fortson’s girlfriend, who had been on a video call with him during the episode. They did not dispute that Airman Fortson was armed but said that he had every right to be as a legal gun owner in his own home.

Asked if he believed the outcome would have been different if Airman Fortson was not Black, Mr. Crump said, “That is something that America has to answer.”

The footage released Thursday shows that the deputy, who has not been identified, had been told by a woman at the apartment complex in Fort Walton Beach, in the Florida Panhandle, that he should go to apartment No. 1401 because of an apparent domestic dispute there.

It is unclear who the woman is, why the deputy had been called in the first place and whether the apartment number was correctly identified.

When the deputy arrives at Apartment 1401, the footage shows, he first knocks without identifying himself. He then knocks again, says, “Sheriff’s office, open the door,” and steps away from the door.

Seconds later, the deputy shifts to the other side of the door, knocks and announces himself again, the footage shows.

Airman Fortson then opens the door, holding in his right hand a gun that appears to be pointed downward. The deputy says, “Step back,” and then fires several times at the airman, who raises his left hand in front of his chest, according to the footage.

After Airman Fortson falls back, the deputy yells, “Drop the gun!”

“I don’t have it,” Airman Fortson replies.

The deputy calls in emergency medical services and tells Airman Fortson, “Do not move.”

Mr. Crump said on Thursday that Airman Fortson was shot six times and that he was alone in his apartment.

Sheriff Eric Aden said at a news conference on Thursday that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would handle the criminal investigation into the shooting. The State Attorney’s Office will also review the episode. The sheriff did not take questions on Thursday.

Mr. Crump released separate footage on Thursday that he said Airman Fortson’s girlfriend had recorded while on FaceTime with him that day. The footage begins moments after Airman Fortson was shot. He is heard heaving and says, “I can’t breathe.”

A man in the video appears to tell the medics who arrive that Airman Fortson had been holding a weapon when the door was opened.

In a statement, the airman’s family said they remained “adamant that the police had the wrong apartment,” and that the body camera footage had raised a troubling question: Why did the deputy not order Airman Fortson to drop his weapon before firing?

Hours before the release of the body camera footage, Mr. Crump held a news conference with Airman Fortson’s relatives, including his mother, Chantemekki Fortson.

Ms. Fortson said that her son was known as Mr. Make It Happen, that he loved his younger siblings and that he had joined the military to help his family get ahead.

“My child bought me an Infiniti, a brand-new car,” she said at the news conference, where she cradled a framed photo of Airman Fortson in his military uniform. “He was trying to give me everything that I never could get for myself.”

Mr. Crump said that his message to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office was that “when you make a mistake, you own up to it.”

“You don’t try to justify killing a good guy,” he said.

Alexis Piquero, a professor of criminology at the University of Miami, said that the body camera footage was just “one big piece of a jigsaw puzzle” in the case. Other factors, such as the initial 911 dispatch call and interviews with the woman who led the deputy to Airman Fortson’s apartment, would offer a fuller picture of what may have gone wrong.





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