IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.
U.S. news

'He was one of one': Service members remember Black airman killed by Florida deputy

Air Force Senior Airman Roger Fortson was fatally shot by a Florida sheriff’s deputy May 3 after he answered his door holding a gun pointed downward.
military air force airman killed by Okaloosa Sheriff
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Roger Fortson, 23.U.S. Air Force

Aaron Rozier was sure Roger Fortson was from Georgia the first time he heard him speak. 

There was something familiar about his accent, Rozier said, remembering the day he and Forston met in 2021 while stationed together at Hurlburt Field Air Force base in Okaloosa County, Florida.

Turns out, they grew up about 10 minutes away from each other in the Atlanta metro area and their mothers attended the same high school.

Building on that instant connection, they became like brothers.

“He was one of one,” Rozier, 26, said Wednesday. “Everything you wanted in a wingman, friend and brother.”

It was through their mothers that Rozier learned the devastating news this month that Fortson had been shot and killed in his apartment by a deputy from the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office responding to a call of a disturbance in progress. Fortson was home alone at the time. 

Last week, amid mounting pressure, the sheriff’s office released body camera video of the deadly May 3 encounter. The video shows Fortson answering the door of his off-base apartment in Fort Walton Beach and immediately being shot by a deputy. Fortson could be seen holding a handgun in his right hand that was pointed downward. His family and their attorneys have said the gun was legally owned. The deputy had twice announced himself.

Rozier, a senior airman now stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, plans to travel to Georgia to attend Fortson’s funeral Friday. 

Rozier said he wanted Forston to be remembered as charismatic and “unapologetically himself.”

“He was wise beyond his years. He wouldn’t tell you what you wanted to hear, but he would tell you what you needed to hear,” he said, adding that his friend was “someone who would see you at your lowest and wouldn’t judge you for it. But you knew he would crack a joke about it that would make you laugh.”

He lovingly remembered Fortson as the kind of close friend who would come over and raid his refrigerator.

Charles Johnson, an airman first class who is stationed at Hurlburt Field and met Fortson through Rozier in 2021, said Fortson was fun-loving, goofy, and a great man and friend. The three of them communicated daily in a text message group chat. 

“He was always the life of the party,” Johnson, 24, said. And in his spare time, Fortson liked to play his PlayStation 5 or talk on the phone with his family and girlfriend.

On the day Forston died, he and Johnson had spent two or three hours talking and playing Mortal Kombat at Johnson’s apartment in Fort Walton Beach, Johnson said. At one point, the conversation turned to a video Fortson had come across on Instagram of an Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputy who mistook the sound of an acorn hitting his patrol vehicle for a gunshot. The deputy fired multiple times at the SUV where a Black man was handcuffed in the backseat. The man was not injured in the November incident, and the deputy has since resigned.

“We always would talk about the diaspora of race relations in that part of Florida, specifically with police and people of color,” said Johnson, who, along with his girlfriend, organized a vigil outside Fortson’s apartment over the weekend.

He and Rozier believe Fortson’s killing was unjustified and that the outcome would have been different if Fortson was not Black. 

“As a young Black man in the part of Florida we live in, he didn’t have a chance,” Johnson said. “The officer that responded to the disturbance — which, by the way, is still under question, where the disturbance was coming from — I personally feel that he only saw the color of Roger’s skin and the firearm he had in his hand. And that was enough to validate his own fear and cause him to shoot Roger.”

“I don’t know if people see it, but there is a split second where that cop could have made the adjustment and asked some questions or yelled,” he added.

Fortson’s family has raised similar questions.

“In the four-and-a-half minute, heavily redacted video, 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,” the family said in a statement issued May 9 by their attorney following the release of the body camera video. “Despite the redactions, the video has provided some answers, but it’s also raised even more troubling questions. 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?”

Rozier said that while he has been stationed in New Mexico, he has volunteered as a security forces member and undergone rigorous training on when to shoot. He said he has been taught that there are several preconditions that must be met in order to draw his weapon, and that he should consider “the capability, opportunity and intent for someone to injure you.”

“All three of those things have to be in the scenario in order for you to utilize your deadly weapon,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s considered murder.” 

He said he would expect the sheriff’s deputy, who has not been publicly named, to be held to the same standards. The deputy has been placed on administrative leave, and Sheriff Eric Aden said he has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct an investigation into the shooting, as required by policy. Aden said the Florida State Attorney’s Office would also conduct an independent review. In its initial statement, the sheriff’s office said the deputy had “reacted in self defense.” 

While Fortson may have had the capability and opportunity to injure the deputy, Rozier said, he does not believe that was his intent. “The gun was pointed down,” he said. 

Brian Barr and Benjamin Crump, attorneys for Fortson’s family, have said Fortson was shot six times. 

In the months leading up to his death, Fortson would often speak of his plans to be medically discharged due to an injury he sustained while serving abroad last year, his friends said. He had shared with them his hopes of enrolling in nursing school as early as this month and eventually putting down roots in Houston. 

“Roger was very in tune about carrying himself a certain way so that he wouldn’t find himself in a bad position with law enforcement,” Johnson said. “And it’s heartbreaking to think that somebody who knows the ins and outs and minutiae of how all of those things work together still ended up dead in his own home. He was just a good person and he did not deserve to go the way that he went.”