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Surviving a police shooting turned a teenager into an activist

In 2012, Leon Ford was shot by the police. That was only the beginning of his journey.

Leon Ford was 19 when he was shot by police and paralyzed.
Photo by Emmai Alaquiva

On the night of November 11th, 2012, Leon Ford was pulled over by Pittsburgh police officers in a traffic stop that would forever alter the course of his life. He was 19 at the time, and the officers had misidentified Ford as a suspect who had a similar name. Officer David Derbish jumped into the car while the engine was running, and after a struggle that sent Ford’s vehicle crashing into a nearby porch, Derbish shot Ford five times. One of the bullets struck Ford’s spine, leaving him paralyzed, and the incident was captured by one of the police cars’ dashcams.

Ford was eventually acquitted of aggravated assault charges. Derbish, now a detective, remains on the police force. The city of Pittsburgh settled with Ford for $5.5 million, six years after he was shot.

Since then, Ford has become an author and a public speaker. He framed the hoodie he was wearing that night, complete with bullet holes and bloodstains, and took the photos for the cover of his 2017 autobiography Untold at the site of his shooting. “I survived,” he tells me, “and I think it was so I could inspire and educate people.”

Ford says he’s seen a shift in the public’s attitude toward police shootings and police violence since he was shot. The pandemic, he says, helped push many long-simmering issues to the boiling point. “People are frustrated, they’re losing jobs, they’re home, on social media all day, watching TV, and they can’t ignore what’s been going on,” he said.

Ford’s views have changed as well, and he says he’s happy to see younger people more politically aware than he used to be. “When Jordan Miles got beat up by the police, I didn’t get involved,” he said, referring to a 2010 police brutality incident where three Pittsburgh police officers arrested and beat a Black high school student because they (incorrectly) claimed he had a gun. “I just wasn’t politically engaged, I didn’t know who the mayor was, who my state rep was.”

These days, Ford says the shift in perspective is easiest to see when he’s speaking to teenagers. Students are asking questions about politics and how they can mobilize. “I just tell them the truth as I see it. These are eighth graders with a strong understanding of political structures,” he says. “And this is a generation that knows they’ve been lied to, and they’re not taking it anymore.” They’re not waiting to be appointed leaders, he tells me. They’re already connecting with each other.

Ford says he can’t watch smartphone videos of police violence and has mixed feelings about how widely such videos — including one that shows the death of George Floyd — are shared. “They are triggers for me,” he says. “I think about how traumatic it is, how his family feels seeing people share it over and over. But then there are people who if they didn’t see the video, they wouldn’t have been outraged.”

These videos have made it a lot harder to turn a blind eye to police brutality, which he thinks is a good thing. But he wishes that the videos weren’t necessary to convince people how serious the problem is. “We’re seeing dozens of these videos go viral every single year and anybody who thinks logically has to be wondering what is really going on,” Ford says. Police departments are militarized in communities of color, he continues. “They don’t make people feel safe — I’ve never felt safe, my entire life, not just when I was shot,” he continues. “You’ve got to meet people where they are, but so many leaders in so many cities across America are so disconnected from what’s going on in their communities.”

That is why Ford says the conversations around defunding police deserve serious consideration. The city of Pittsburgh’s 2020 operating budget was $608 million, and $115 million — about 19 percent — was devoted to the police department. In his view, that’s not what reduces crime. He pointed to the use of ShotSpotter technology, which detects the sounds of gunshots. It’s reactive rather than proactive, and it’s expensive: in 2018, Pittsburgh city council signed a three-year contract with ShotSpotter for $3.4 million. Ford doesn’t think it’s worth it.

“If you invest that ShotSpotter money into sending young men and women to trade school, for instance, that’s what will reduce crime,” he says. “People are out there just trying to make it the best they can.”

Last year, Ford decided to run for a seat on the Pittsburgh City Council. His platform was about seeking bold change in Pittsburgh’s political structures, which he said often left many people not feeling like their voices were heard. “I decided to run after Antwon Rose was murdered,” he said, “and I gave a speech and everyone was saying to me ‘oh Leon Ford for mayor!’”

He says he learned a lot very quickly about how politics and political alliances work in Pittsburgh. “It’s like, I’m going to go change all this but I have to go into a system that can swallow you whole. Some people are built for that, they can navigate that space, but it’s something I wasn’t willing to do, and it wasn’t going to be good for me,” he says. He eventually dropped out of the race. And anyway, the platform he has is already large enough to have an impact on politics without him having to make political sacrifices.

These days, Ford is in therapy for the PTSD he got from his shooting. He hadn’t sought treatment before, partly because of a perceived stigma around mental health issues and partly because it wasn’t really presented to him as an option. He’s also now on a “Heal America” tour, which is a series of public events that examine inequality in America; he visited George Floyd’s memorial in Minneapolis last month. “It made me realize: there’s so much more I can do,” he said, adding that he hopes to continue discussions about mental health care and police violence. “I’ve talked about healing for a long time; it’s one thing to talk about it and another thing to be about it.”