Experts weigh in on use of deadly force in fatal shooting of Florida US airman

The shooting of Roger Fortson is reminiscent of the killings of Amir Locke, Philando Castile and Atatiana Jefferson.
A mourner holds a funeral program near the casket of slain airman Roger Fortson during his funeral
Posted at 5:58 PM, May 17, 2024

The controversial police shooting of Roger Fortson in Florida has raised critical questions about gun ownership, policing and race.

Fortson, a U.S. Air Force senior airman, opened his door with a gun in his hand that appeared to be pointing downward in body cam video.

A sheriff's deputy responding to a complaint about an argument appeared to quickly fire six shots at Fortson in his doorway. Fortson later died in the hospital.

Scripps News' spoke to three law enforcement experts about how they feel police should handle an increasingly armed citizenry — including those who legally possess firearms — as well as what may have gone wrong here.

Brian Higgins of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Daniel Maxwell of the University of New Haven are both former police officers. They both say a firearm, no matter the situation, raises the stakes.

Higgins said, "In situations like this, particularly ones with firearms, which we're talking about, they can change in the blink of an eye. Having someone stand there with just a firearm in their hand is not a threat. Once that firearm moves, then it's the judgment of the officer."

"They're trained to stop the threat, and a firearm, you know, clearly represents a viable threat not just to police officers, but to anybody in the area. Anybody with a gun in their hand is going to be perceived as a threat," Maxwell said.

Fortson was a registered gun owner and inside his home when the shooting took place. The "castle doctrine" says residents may use force, including deadly force, to protect their home.

But Bob Scales, a former prosecutor and public safety policy adviser for the city of Seattle, says what matters is what the officer knew at the time of the shooting.

This photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows Senior Airman Roger Fortson

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"Certainly the fact that we have a lot of gun violence and a lot of firearms in this country would be a factor that would have to be taken into consideration if the officer was aware of that. And obviously most officers would be aware of that," Scales said.

He added, "It's obviously really difficult because we don't know why the individual had a gun in his hand. But at the same time, the officer doesn't know, and things happen so quickly."

The shooting of Fortson is reminiscent of the killings of Amir Locke, Philando Castile and Atatiana Jefferson — all Black legal gun owners killed by White police officers without committing a crime.

During a press conference, civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Fortson's family, said, "When you think about the people we want to have guns in the state of Florida, he is exhibit A."

Higgins says whether race was a factor in this shooting is hard to say, but it's important to the policing conversation.

"This officer fired these rounds may not have even perceived his race at the time — just focused on that firearm. But I don't think we can just brush over the fact that it was an African American that was killed by the police. That's just a fact, and we can't just ignore it," Higgins said.

Okaloosa County Sheriff's officials say the deputy acted in self-defense, Crump calls the shooting unjustified.

The officer involved has not been identified but has been placed on paid administrative leave.