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Attorney, family of Black airman fatally shot by Florida deputies want a transparent investigation

MIAMI — The family of a 23-year-old Black U.S. Air Force airman who was fatally shot by sheriff’s deputies at his off-base apartment in Florida last week will join civil rights attorney Ben Crump for a news conference Thursday calling for transparency in the investigation.

Crump said in a statement released Wednesday that Okaloosa County Sheriff’s deputies responding to a disturbance call at the apartment complex in Fort Walton Beach burst into the wrong unit and fatally shot Senior Airman Roger Fortson when they saw he was armed with a gun. Fortson was home alone and on a Facetime call with a friend when deputies arrived at his door, Crump said.

Fortson was based at the Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field.

According to Crump, the woman, whom the attorney didn’t identify, said Fortson heard a knock at the door. He asked who was there but didn’t get a response. A few minutes later, Fortson heard a louder knock but didn’t see anyone when he looked through the peephole, Crump said, citing the woman’s account.

The woman said Fortson was concerned and went to retrieve his gun, which Crump said was legally owned.

As Fortson walked back through his living room, deputies burst through the door, saw that Fortson was armed and shot him six times, according to Crump’s statement. The woman said Fortson was on the ground, saying, “I can’t breathe,” after he was shot, Crump said.

Fortson died at a hospital, officials said. The deputy involved in the shooting was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

The woman said Fortson wasn’t causing a disturbance during their Facetime call and believes that the deputies must have had the wrong apartment, Crump’s statement said.

“The circumstances surrounding Roger’s death raise serious questions that demand immediate answers from authorities, especially considering the alarming witness statement that the police entered the wrong apartment,” Crump said.

“We are calling for transparency in the investigation into Roger’s death and the immediate release of body cam video to the family,” Crump said. “His family and the public deserve to know what occurred in the moments leading up to this tragedy.”

Crump is a nationally known attorney based in Tallahassee, Florida. He 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.

On Wednesday, when he released a statement about Fortson’s death, Crump was in Ohio for the funeral of Frank Tyson, a 53-year-old who died in police custody on April 18.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office didn’t immediately respond to an email or voicemail from The Associated Press seeking comment about Crump’s statements. But Sheriff Eric Aden posted a statement on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon expressing sadness about the shooting.

“At this time, we humbly ask for our community’s patience as we work to understand the facts that resulted in this tragic event,” Aden said.

The sheriff’s office said in a statement last week that 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.

The sheriff’s office also declined to immediately identify the responding deputies or their races. Officials said earlier this week that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the local State Attorney’s Office will investigate the shooting.

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

Fortson was assigned to the 4th Special Operations Squadron as a special missions aviator, where one of his roles as a member of the squadron’s AC-130J Ghostrider aircrew was to load the gunship’s 30mm and 105mm cannons during missions.

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 offer fatally shot Botham Jean, an unarmed Black man, after mistaking his apartment for her own. Amber Guyger, the former officer, was found guilty of murder the following year 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 found guilty of manslaughter in 2022 and was sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison.

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

“What I’m trying to do, as much as I can, even sometimes singlehandedly, is increase the value of Black life,” Crump told The Associated Press in 2021 following the conviction a former Minneapolis officer in the murder of George Floyd.

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.

Fort Walton Beach is between Panama City Beach and Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle.


Associated Press reporters Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Aaron Morrison in New York contributed to this story.

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