This Black Man Survived a Police Shooting and Became an Activist

Leon Ford survived a 2012 police shooting after a traffic stop. Today, he feels a sense of responsibility to speak out on behalf of the many other unarmed black men whose confrontations with police end even more tragically.

Alex Zimmerman

Photo courtesy Leon Ford, Jr.

On November 11, 2012, Leon Ford, Jr. was pulled over on a Pittsburgh street for what police described as a minor traffic violation. There were no problems with his paperwork or warrants for his arrest, but less than 20 minutes later, Ford found himself dazed in his wrecked silver Infiniti while city police scrambled to handcuff him.

He didn't realize it at first, but he had just been shot.

"I remember the officers screaming, yelling, 'Where's the guns, where's the drugs?'" Ford says. "They pulled me out and slammed me on the ground and handcuffed me face down. I thought they Tased me until blood was coming out my mouth and from under me. I was like, Wow, they shot me... I thought I was going to die."

It's been nearly three years since the evening when Pittsburgh officer David Derbish shot then 19-year-old Ford four times, leaving him paralyzed. Before that night, Ford was a fairly typical teenager: He enjoyed making music videos and boxing. He helped his uncle out at the body shop and was getting ready to start taking classes at a local community college. Now 22, Ford uses a wheelchair and has no sensation below his waist. He often wakes up with a tingling feeling in his hands and has trouble writing without cramping up.

He certainly doesn't box anymore, but on a recent rainy Friday afternoon, as he wheels himself into a café, Leon Ford is smiling.

That smile doesn't disappear, even when he talks about being shot or what he makes of the national conversation on policing issues and the Black Lives Matter movement. He's unrelentingly positive—and doesn't see why he should act otherwise. "You can either look at a situation as a curse or a blessing and I chose the blessing route," Ford says. "It's just how I learned to deal with my problems."

But Ford also feels a sense of responsibility for speaking out on behalf of the many other unarmed black men whose confrontations with police ended differently. It's what makes his perspective on policing in America so unique.

"Unlike Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Ezell Ford, Mike Brown, and many other victims of police misconduct, I survived to tell my story," Ford wrote in a September letter to Pittsburgh officials. "In many ways, I may also be telling their stories as well."

Photo courtesy Leon Ford, Jr.

Just a few minutes after Ford was pulled over, he started to get the feeling there was something strange about that 2012 traffic stop. Officers Michael Kosko and Andrew Miller later reported he was driving quickly and didn't stop completely at multiple stop signs. Ford had been arrested that September on DUI and underage drinking charges, but that didn't seem to be what the officers were concerned about. "They were barking at me, saying I was Lamont Ford," he recalls, referring to another man for whom police said they had an outstanding warrant. That's around the time officers called a third cop, David Derbish, to the scene to help identify him.

A video of the incident shows the traffic stop dragged on until the officers started trying to get Ford out of the car. As the officers struggled, Derbish, who was standing at the passenger side, jumped into the car with Ford. Derbish said that he saw a bulge in Ford's pants that he thought was a gun and saw Ford reach for the gearshift, potentially endangering the other two officers. Seconds later, the car lurched forward. Trapped inside, Derbish would testify that Ford hit him and tried to push him out of the car. Fearing for his life, and in an effort "to stop the threat," he drew his gun and pulled the trigger five times.

Ford would prove to be unarmed, and even police officials found the officers violated bureau policies. They were not wearing mandated audio recording equipment, for instance, and bureau policy forbids officers from reaching into a suspect's car while the engine is running.

The review board, comprised of top police officials, was also critical of the officers' conclusion that Ford was armed, and wrote that Derbish's decision to shoot him in a moving car was inconsistent with department policy. "We believe this situation could have been avoided had the officers followed training and protocol and Mr. Leon Ford followed the lawful instructions of officers," the board wrote, and recommended unspecified discipline for Derbish and remedial training for Kosko and Miller. Though the district attorney did not charge any of the officers criminally, Derbish is reportedly under federal investigation.

Some outside experts have criticized Ford for appearing to resist the officers' commands, but many agree that if the officers had behaved differently, the shooting could have been avoided. "Basically everything was in order, everything checks out and yet they have some weird suspicion he's somebody else," says David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies policing practices. "That's the inevitable path to the shooting. If the police had been simply focused on what they were doing, issuing a citation if necessary," it's likely the stop would have ended peacefully, according to Harris.

For his part, Ford says he doesn't remember the struggle, or why the car sped off. "It's pretty much like a blur," he says. "It was very intense. I just remember being scared. I don't remember [Derbish] even getting in the car."

Ford was charged with felony aggravated assault connected with the incident, and a handful of lesser charges including resisting arrest and endangering each of the officers. "Just imagine being shot, waking up, and finding out you're paralyzed—then finding out you're being charged, you're facing a lot of years in prison," Ford says. "I really didn't know how to feel. I was in a deep stage of depression for a long time." A jury acquitted him of the felony charges last September and deadlocked on the misdemeanors; the district attorney did not re-try him.

When an officer shoots somebody and goes on paid leave then gets his job back, I don't think that's good for the department. It's showing these officers even when you do a bad thing, you're still accepted, you're still loved, you're still one of us. –Leon Ford Jr.

While Ford is suing the officers in federal court for violating his civil rights (they are denying the charges) and claims the city didn't properly train them, he's also started advocating for reform beyond Pittsburgh. Perhaps the biggest problem, as he sees it, is not being able to effectively discipline or fire problem officers.

"My case is still pending, and the officers involved in my shooting are still working," says Ford, who acknowledges that Derbish, the officer who shot him, was moved to desk duty. "When an officer shoots somebody and goes on paid leave then gets his job back, I don't think that's good for the department. It's showing these officers even when you do a bad thing, you're still accepted, you're still loved, you're still one of us."

He also points to a need for changes in the law so that a greater number of police shootings are investigated by independent authorities, and wants improvements in the ways police officers are trained to use force. Some of those changes are already in motion. Last year, Wisconsin passed a law that requires an outside investigation whenever someone dies in police custody, apparently the first statewide policy of its kind. And in Ford's native Pittsburgh, Police Chief Cameron McLay has promised better community-oriented policing and training on an implicit bias.

There are other signs that attitudes about the police are changing, partly driven by videos that contradict police accounts of specific incidents. "Once these videos circulate on social media, the average American citizen is able to discern these officers are wrong in this particular situation," Ford says. "That's a huge step. Three years ago when I got shot, it was like ... the officers can't be wrong."

And Ford is encouraged by some policy shifts, such as the NYPD's recent move to require that officers document just about every time they use force against the public.

"I think that's a good policy coming from a community like Homewood [in Pittsburgh] where you see people get beat up by the police all the time and nobody files reports," Ford says. Still, he warns that even well-intentioned policies won't be effective if the public can't hold police accountable for them. "A lot of times these policies get passed and nobody knows. Activists know, and people who vote and keep up with politics know, but the community at large doesn't know."

That's partly why Ford has started to devote his life to talking about what happened as well as mentor young people. He hopes that by telling his story, people will be inspired to do something about institutional and legal barriers to police reform. It's not enough to lob criticisms of police policy or protest, Ford argues. "There are other ways to fight back."

Before 2012, Ford had the kinds of interactions with police that were common growing up in some of Pittsburgh's predominantly African-American neighborhoods. He says police sometimes harassed him and his friends, searching them for no apparent reason.

"Just imagine being nine-years-old and it starts happening to you. By the time you're 18, you're used to it even though it's wrong," Ford says. After he got shot, he started to view what seemed like minor interactions with police in a different way; there was always a lingering threat that what seemed like small traffic stop could end in death.

Watch the VICE HBO documentary on America's incarceration system, featuring President Barack Obama's first-ever visit to a federal prison:

He's started speaking about what happened to him through an organization called Leon Ford Speaks, sometimes making four appearances a week in cities mostly along the east coast. He talks about everything from voting to how to deal with police, and argues the best strategy is to avoid confrontation. "If an officer comes up on you and you smile and you're polite, hopefully it will play out differently," Ford says.

But one of the interesting features of Ford's rhetoric is that he often talks about police reform as one of many intersectional problems. "A lot of people protest and that's step one," Ford says. "I think we've been at step one for a long time. Police officers are first responders [but] it's a whole system protecting these officers. That's why you have to fight to reform the system at large."

And while the path forward on criminal justice reform is less obvious to Ford—who points to everything from education to mass incarceration—that's not the only reason he talks about what happened.

"Believe it or not [it's] fun to me, it's healing," he says through a smile. "Every time I speak, I feel some of my pain go away."

Alex Zimmerman is a Brooklyn-based journalist covering everything from cops to trains. His work has appeared in the Village Voice, Pittsburgh City Paper, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter.