Experts say gun alone doesn’t justify deadly force in fatal shooting of Florida airman

(AP) On the afternoon of May 3, Roger Fortson opened the door of 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 rapid decision to open fire and his mere presence at the apartment — where the Air Force senior airman was apparently alone and FaceTiming with his girlfriend — as proof that it was a blatantly unjustified killing and the latest tragedy involving a Black American being shot at home by law enforcement. Authorities, meanwhile, have seized on Fortson holding a gun when he answered the door to cast the shooting as a clear-cut case of self-defense for a deputy confronted with a split-second, life-or-death decision.

Investigators will consider these factors when deciding whether to charge the deputy in a case that also reflects the realities officers face every day in a country where millions of people carry guns, including in Florida, one of the largest gun ownership states.

Policing experts say Fortson simply holding a gun when he opened the door wasn’t enough justification to use deadly force, but investigators will also have to consider what information the deputy knew when he responded and whether Fortson showed any behavioral indication that he posed a threat. They also say the proliferation of legal and illegal firearms is forcing officers throughout the country to have to decide faster than ever what constitutes a deadly threat.

“The speed of the shooting is pretty intense. It’s happening very, very fast,” 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 Fortson’s shooting.

“The presence of a gun enhances the risk. But mere presence is not at all justification for using deadly force,” Adams said.

The 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 haven’t been released, bangs on Fortson’s door, pauses, then knocks again, yelling that he’s from the sheriff’s office. Fortson eventually answers the door while holding what appears to be a gun by his side pointed at the ground. Within a few seconds, the deputy shoots Fortson six times, only then yelling for him to drop his weapon.

Sheriff Eric Aden said the deputy acted in self-defense, and he rejected assertions that the deputy was at 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 had been home alone and on a Facetime call with his girlfriend.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating.

Adams said beyond the body camera footage there has to be some behavioral indication that a person intends to cause deadly harm with their gun.

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

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

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

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

But experts say officers aren’t required to issue commands or warnings whenever 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 it’s feasible.

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