Roger Fortson shooting: What we know about the police killing of a Black Air Force service member

Fortson’s shooting deepens longstanding scrutiny of police violence.

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Chantemekki Fortson, mother of Roger Fortson, a US Air Force senior airman, holds a photo of her son during a news conference with attorney Ben Crump on May 9, 2024, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.  Gerald Herbert/AP Photo Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The police killing of a Black Air Force service member in his own home is drawing renewed scrutiny to the deadly violence that US law enforcement routinely and disproportionately uses against Black Americans.

On May 3, an officer responded to a call about a domestic disturbance and knocked on the door of US airman Roger Fortson’s apartment in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Newly released body camera footage shows Fortson, 23, opening the door and holding a handgun pointed downward. Within seconds of the door opening, and without asking him to drop his weapon, the officer fired multiple shots at Fortson’s chest. Fortson later died of the gunshot injuries at a nearby hospital.

The body camera footage has raised new questions about the officer’s use of fatal force and his reason for visiting Fortson’s apartment in the first place. Fortson’s family has pointed to evidence suggesting that police went to the wrong unit and have emphasized that the shooting was unjustified. In an initial statement about the incident, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Department claimed that the shooting was in self-defense. The Sheriff’s Department has since said that the officer did not go to the incorrect apartment and that it won’t be concluding whether the shooting was justified until a state investigation is complete.

Fortson’s shooting is another harrowing episode in the long history of police violence against Black Americans. In 2020, mass protests erupted across the US following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after an officer knelt on his neck for over nine minutes. Those followed extensive demonstrations in 2014 after Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. The police shooting of Fortson also echoes other cases when law enforcement has killed Black Americans in their homes, including the shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

Police violence has continued unabated in recent years as well, with 2023 seeing the most police killings in more than a decade. That year, Black people comprised 13 percent of the US population but accounted for 27 percent of those killed by police, according to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit tracking this information.

This intractable trend has criminal justice advocates concerned that the problem won’t improve without substantial policy changes that lawmakers have yet to invest in.

What we know about the shooting

The shooting occurred after an unidentified woman in Fortson’s apartment complex called the police to report a domestic disturbance. In the body camera footage provided by the Okaloosa Sheriff’s Department, a police officer can be seen approaching the complex and talking to a woman on the premises about a couple reportedly fighting in one of the apartments.

The woman leads the officer to the area of the complex where she says she heard the fighting and gives him Fortson’s unit number, 1401. The officer approaches Fortson’s door and knocks on it without identifying himself. After not receiving a response, the officer knocks two more times and says twice, “Sheriff’s office, open the door.”

Fortson then opens the door, holding a gun that is pointed at the ground. Almost immediately, the officer shoots Fortson multiple times and he falls down. At that point, the officer says, “Drop the gun,” and Fortson replies, “It’s over there. I don’t have it.” The officer calls for emergency medical services, and Fortson is taken to a nearby hospital, where he died from his injuries.

According to Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney representing Fortson’s family, Fortson’s girlfriend was on FaceTime with him during the entire encounter. Per Crump, she said he was by himself in the apartment. Crump added that Fortson heard the initial knock from the officer and retrieved his gun because he couldn’t see who the person was at the door. And Fortson’s family has said that the gun was legally owned.

In a CNN interview, Crump notes that the woman at the apartment complex may have made a mistake and directed officers to the incorrect unit. Fortson’s girlfriend has also released part of their FaceTime video, via Crump, which includes audio of the aftermath of the shooting and police checking the apartment for more people.

It’s not completely clear from the audio, but it does not appear that police found anyone else in the apartment. Crump has said that she’ll hold a separate press conference at a later time.

The body camera footage has also spurred concerns from advocates and his family about why the officer shot Fortson so quickly and before asking him to drop his weapon.

The Georgia NAACP is demanding justice, and we sincerely hope it prevails for him and his family. There’s no justification for this tragedy, and US Airman #RogerFortson should still be among us today. #NAACP

— Georgia NAACP (@Georgia_NAACP) May 10, 2024

“It is very troubling that the deputy gave no verbal commands and shot multiple times within a split second of the door being opened, killing Roger,” Fortson’s family said via a statement from Crump. “As the officer didn’t tell Roger to drop the weapon before shooting, was the officer trained to give verbal warnings? Did the officer try to initiate life-saving measures? Was the officer trained to deal with law-abiding citizens who are registered gun owners?”

In the week since, the Okaloosa Sheriff’s Department has placed the officer involved in the shooting, whose identity has not been revealed, on paid administrative leave and said that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will conduct a full inquiry.

Fortson’s family has emphasized how dedicated he was to his work in the Air Force, how committed he was to his siblings, and how he hoped to one day buy his mother a home. “He was fighting for everybody,” his mother, Chantemekki Fortson, said.

Black Americans are killed disproportionately by police. This has included shootings in people’s own homes.

Fortson’s shooting adds to the fatal violence that Black Americans have experienced at the hands of police.

A 2020 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that Black people were more than three times as likely to be killed by police during an encounter than white people were. Last year, the fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis and a deadly police shooting of Ta’Kiya Young in Blendon Township, Ohio, were two high-profile examples of this persistent trend.

Fortson also joins the tragic list of Black Americans killed by police in their own homes. These incidents include the fatal shooting of Botham Jean in 2018 by a police officer who entered the wrong apartment thinking it was her own and the police killing of Atatiana Jefferson in 2019, when officers thought she was an intruder in her own house.

These killings point to enduring institutional problems with policing that experts say will take much deeper systemic reforms to resolve than the policies that have been put forth since the 2020 mass protests.

In the wake of those demonstrations, certain cities have cut police budgets, and some states have approved reforms to better standardize reporting of law enforcement use of force. Police are still empowered, however, to use lethal force in many cases that do not require it, says Daniela Gilbert, a director of redefining public safety at the Vera Institute of Justice. And legal accountability and transparency regarding police misconduct are still lacking.

“It’s bad and it’s sad, but it’s not shocking that we’re still being killed at a higher rate,” Karundi Williams, CEO of re:power, a group dedicated to training Black political leaders, told NBC News in 2022. “When we have moments of racial injustice that is thrust in the national spotlight, there is an uptick of outrage, and people take to the streets.”

“But then the media tends to move on to other things, and that consciousness decreases,” she continued. “But we never really got underneath the problem.”


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