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Questions and grief linger at the apartment door where a deputy killed a US airman

WASHINGTON (AP) — At the apartment door where a Florida deputy shot and killed Senior Airman Roger Fortson, a small shrine is growing with the tributes from the Air Force unit grappling with his loss.

There is a long wooden plank, anchored by two sets of aviator wings, and a black marker for mourners to leave prayers and remembrances for the 23-year-old.

One visitor left an open Stella Artois beer. Others left combat boots, bouquets and an American flag. Shells from 105mm and 30mm rounds like those that Fortson handled as a gunner on the unit’s AC-130J special operations aircraft stand on each side of the door — the empty 105mm shell is filled with flowers.

Then there’s the quarter.

In military tradition, quarters are left quietly and often anonymously if a fellow service member was there at the time of death.

The 1st Special Operations Wing in the Florida Panhandle, where Fortson served took time from normal duties Monday to process his death and “to turn members’ attention inward, use small group discussions, allow voices to be heard, and connect with teammates,” the Wing said in a statement.

In multiple online forums, a heated debate has spilled out in the week since Fortson was shot: Did police have the right apartment? A caller reported a domestic disturbance, but Fortson was alone. Why would the deputy shoot so quickly? Why would the police kill a service member?

There are also questions about whether race played a role because Fortson is Black, and echoes of the police killing of George Floyd.

Fortson was holding his legally owned gun when he opened his front door, but it was pointed to the floor. Based on body camera footage released by the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, the deputy only commanded Fortson to drop the gun after he shot him.

“We know our Air Commandos are seeing the growing media coverage and are having conversations on what happened,” Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, said in a message to unit leaders last week.

He urged those leaders to listen with an effort to understand their troops: “We have grieving teammates with differing journeys.”

In 2020, after Floyd’s death, then-Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth O. Wright wrote an emotional note to his troops about police killings of Black men and children: “I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I am George Floyd … I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice.”

At the time, Wright was among a handful of Black military leaders, including now-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. CQ Brown Jr., who said they needed to address the killing and how it was affecting them.

“My greatest fear, not that I will be killed by a white police officer (believe me my heart starts racing like most other Black men in America when I see those blue lights behind me) … but that I will wake up to a report that one of our Black Airmen has died at the hands of a white police officer,” Wright wrote at the time.

Wright, who is now retired, posted a photo on his personal Facebook page Thursday of Fortson standing in matching flight suits with his little sister.

“Who Am I … I’m SrA Roger Fortson,” Wright posted. “This is what I always feared. Praying for his family. RIH young King.”

On Friday, many from Fortson’s unit will travel to Georgia to attend his funeral, with a flyover of Special Operations AC-130s planned.

“You were taken too soon,” another senior airman wrote on the wooden plank at Fortson’s front door. “No justice no peace.”

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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