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Experts say weapon alone does not justify deadly force in fatal shooting of Florida airman

On the afternoon of May 3, Roger Fortson opened the door to 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 quick decision to open fire and his mere presence at the apartment — where the senior Air Force airman was apparently alone and FaceTiming with his girlfriend — as evidence that This was a blatantly unjustified killing and the latest tragedy involving a black person. An American shot dead in his home by the police. Meanwhile, authorities seized Fortson holding a gun when he opened the door to present the shooting as a clear case of self-defense for a deputy facing a split-second life-or-death decision.

Investigators will consider those factors when deciding whether to charge the deputy in a case that also reflects the realities police officers face daily in a country where millions of people carry guns, including in Florida, one of the most gun-owning states.

Police experts say the mere fact that Fortson was holding a gun when he opened the door was not sufficient justification to use deadly force, but investigators will also have to look at what information the deputy had when he responded and whether Fortson showed any behavioral indication that he posed a threat. . They also say the proliferation of legal and illegal guns is forcing officers across the country to decide more quickly than ever what constitutes a deadly threat.

“The speed of filming is quite intense. It’s happening very, very quickly,” 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 the shooting. of Fortson.

“The presence of a weapon increases the risk. But mere presence does not justify the use of deadly force at all,” Adams said.

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 have not been released, knocks on Fortson’s door, pauses, then knocks again, yelling that he is from the sheriff’s office. Fortson eventually opened the door while holding what appeared to be a gun at his side, pointed at the ground. Within seconds, the deputy shot Fortson six times, then yelled at him to drop the gun.

Sheriff Eric Aden said the deputy acted in self-defense and he rejected claims the deputy was in 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 was home alone and in a Facetime conversation with his girlfriend.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating.

Adams said that beyond body camera footage, there must be a behavioral indication that a person intends to cause fatal injury with their weapon.

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

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

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

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

But experts say officers are not required to issue orders or warnings every time 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 possible.

“But if stopping to give a warning or verbal command increases the risk of a deadly threat, then it is not feasible,” he said.

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

“When he opens the door and sees him with a gun and shoots the senior airman six times, to me that immediately screams injustice,” said Lacey, who spent time as a private. Arizona State after leaving the military. “The airman did not raise his weapon or show any hostile intent.”

Lacey responded to a Facebook post from Air Force leaders calling on people on base to support Fortson’s family while showing professionalism. Lacey called the shooting unjustified and urged the commander to “take a stand and do something,” adding that he wouldn’t feel safe with the sheriff’s department on his doorstep.

This is not the first time the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office has been investigated 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 executing a search warrant in 2019. Griffin, who was sleeping naked, was ordered , at gunpoint, to go out and remain naked in front. officers and the public, she said. She has never been arrested or charged with a crime.

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

“I think the Department of Justice needs to look at what’s going on at the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office,” said Kevin Anderson, Griffin’s attorney.

In another incident six months ago, an Okaloosa County deputy responded to the sound of a falling acorn hitting his patrol vehicle by repeatedly shooting at the vehicle, in which a handcuffed black man was sitting 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, but was unharmed.

Internal investigators concluded that the supervisor’s actions were “objectively reasonable” because she was acting to protect the other deputy in what she believed to be “imminent and immediate life-threatening danger.” But the report found that the deputy who initially shouted “shots fired” was not acting reasonably in firing his weapon. 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 a shooting. while he was on duty.

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

“I don’t think the presence of prior shootings can ever justify it,” Adams said. “There is no world where officers are not at risk from firearms. Officers are surrounded by risk. But risk alone is not a reason to use firearms without force. talk about deadly force.

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