May 27th, 2024

Video shows Florida deputy announced himself prior to fatal shooting of Black airman

By Stephen Smith And Mike Schneider, The Associated Press on May 9, 2024.

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) – A Florida sheriff’s deputy announced himself as law enforcement just before fatally shooting a Black U.S. Air Force airman inside his apartment in the state’s Panhandle, body camera video shown to reporters Thursday shows.

Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden presented the video hours after the family of Senior Airman Roger Fortson and their attorneys held a news conference in which they disputed that the deputy acted in self-defense.

The video from the deputy’s body camera showed that Fortson answered his apartment door with what appears to be handgun pointed down toward the floor. The video shows the deputy banging on the door, stepping aside, seemingly out of view of the door. Twice he shouted: “Sheriff’s office!”

The door opened, and the deputy shouted, “Step back!” The deputy then fired off shots, and shouted, “Drop the gun! Drop the gun! Do not move!” The deputy then called for paramedics on his radio.

Noted civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Fortson’s family, earlier had asked the sheriff’s office for transparency and disputed the narrative authorities released following the May 3 shooting. An email was sent to Crump’s office Thursday afternoon seeking comment about what the bodycam footage showed and the sheriff’s describing as inaccurate Crump’s statements that the deputy went to the wrong apartment and didn’t announce himself.

Alden is seen on the video arriving at an apartment building and speaking to a woman outside who described hearing an argument. The deputy then went up an elevator and walked down an outdoor hallway.

Crump told reporters earlier that Fortson had grabbed his gun because he heard someone outside his apartment, got no response when he asked who was there and discovered the peephole on his door was blocked.

“For whatever reason, they thought he was a bad guy, but he was a good guy. He was a great guy. He was an exceptional guy,” Crump said. “They took a patriot from us.”

The sheriff’s office has declined to identify the responding deputies or their races. Officials have said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the shooting.

Fortson’s mother, Chantemekki Fortson, walked into the morning news conference with Crump holding a framed portrait of her son in his dress uniform. She burst into tears as Crump spoke about her son’s death inside his Fort Walton Beach apartment.

“My baby was shot up,” she said.

Crump called the shooting “an unjustifiable killing.”

“He was just in his apartment, minding his businesses,” Crump said. “They could have made sure they were at the right apartment. They had a duty to make sure they were at the right apartment before they busted in the door.”

In a statement last week, the sheriff’s office said a deputy responding to a call of a disturbance in progress at the apartment complex reacted in self-defense after encountering an armed man. The office did not offer details on what kind of disturbance deputies were responding to or who called them.

Crump said Fortson, originally from Atlanta, was shot six times and died at a hospital. The deputy who shot him was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

Crump said Fortson had always wanted to join the U.S. Air Force and enlisted after graduating high school. He was based at the Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field. As a special missions aviator, one of his roles was to load the gunship’s cannons during missions.

“He was living his dream. By doing so, he was going to make it better for his mother and siblings so they could have a better chance at the American dream,” Crump said.

Fortson was talking to his girlfriend, who hasn’t yet been identified, on FaceTime when deputies burst into his apartment on May 3, Crump added.

Without her, his family wouldn’t have known what happened, he said. The girlfriend notified his mother, who drove to Fort Walton Beach to find out that her son was dead.

At the hospital, deputies approached Chantemekki Fortson, and she told them, “‘You guys have killed my baby. Just take me to my baby please. I just want to see my child,'” she recounted at the news conference.

“They had taken my gift,” she said. “My heart is bleeding, and they wanted to talk to me. They told me the investigation was ongoing,” she said.

FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it is unlikely the agency will have any further comment until the investigation is complete.

Crump, based in Tallahassee, Florida, has been involved in multiple high-profile law enforcement shooting cases involving Black people, including those of Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Tyre Nichols, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was also killed in her home during a no-knock police raid that targeted her ex-boyfriend in 2020.

Fortson’s death draws striking similarities to other Black people killed in recent years by police in their homes, in circumstances that involved officers responding to the wrong address or responding to service calls with wanton uses of deadly force.

In 2018, a white former Dallas police officer fatally shot Botham Jean, who was unarmed, after mistaking his apartment for her own. Amber Guyger, the former officer, was convicted of murder and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In 2019, a white former Fort Worth, Texas, officer fatally shot Atatiana Jefferson through a rear window of her home after responding to a nonemergency call reporting that Jefferson’s front door was open. Aaron Dean, the former officer, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison.

Crump represented families in both cases as part of his effort to force accountability for the killings of Black people at the hands of police.

In November 2023, an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s deputy mistook the sound of an acorn hitting his patrol vehicle for a gunshot and fired multiple times at the SUV where a handcuffed Black man was sitting in the backseat. Sheriff’s officials said the man, who was being questioned about stealing his girlfriend’s car, was not injured. He was taken into custody, but released without being charged. The officer who initiated the shooting resigned.

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Schneider reported from Orlando, Fla.

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The spelling of the name of Fortson’s mother has been corrected to Chantemekki instead of Chantimekki.

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