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Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott: These (and dozens more) are the names we know—the boys, girls, men and women brutally shot and killed by police. Police officers often never faced justice from the courts or the cities that employ them. The deaths of these unarmed black men and women sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, the Ferguson, Mo., revolt and dozens of other forms of resistance across the nation in the last five years.
Often forgotten in these stories is the “lone survivor” of Black Lives Matter, Leon Ford Jr. He faced death at the hands of police like so many others, but lived—and his battle with the Pittsburgh criminal-justice system is a reminder that sometimes the hardest battles come after the shooting stops.
In November of 2012, Leon Ford Jr. was pulled over by police who were “fishing” in Pittsburgh’s predominantly black District 5. Fishing is when police randomly run tags on cars looking for an excuse to pull someone over. Despite a 16-minute interrogation and Ford handing over his license, registration and other documentation, the police insisted that he was, in fact, Lamont Ford, a known gang member, and threatened Leon repeatedly.
Officer Andrew Miller jumped into Ford’s car and attempted to pull him out through the passenger side. When the vehicle kicked into gear during the struggle, another officer, David Derbish, shot Ford five times. Ford remembers falling out of his car onto the concrete, bleeding, as the officers cursed over his body, mocking him, hoping that he’d die. If it weren’t for the actions of a good Samaritan calling an ambulance, Ford might’ve been on the list of names at the start of this story. As a reminder of the perverse power of racism, the Pittsburgh district attorney charged Leon Ford Jr. with criminal assault of the officers, and it wasn’t until spring of 2015, almost three years after he was shot, that the charges were thrown out and the DA chose not to pursue other charges.
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During that time, all three of the officers involved, despite being under investigation, were promoted to detective. Ford’s own civil rights case against the officers who shot him ended on Tuesday with less-than-stellar results. Officer Miller was found not guilty of assault and battery, and the jury deadlocked on whether Derbish used excessive force. We spoke to Ford and his lawyer Thomas Malone about what comes next.
The Root: Leon, you survived getting shot by police five times, then having the DA attempt to charge you with criminal assault. You got through all of that. Why sue the police? Why not just say, “I got through this—I just want to get on with my life?”
Leon Ford Jr.: I wanted to stand up and get justice. I witnessed [the police] lie under oath in criminal court. I watched them get away with shooting me, and I could not let that happen. I felt convicted in my spirt to not let this happen. I felt I had to not only fight for myself but for others.
If I had been content with letting this thing go and not fought it, then things would not have come out. There are things that police testified to under oath. These are gonna be things that in the near future we can use to change some policy in Pennsylvania and across the country.
Thomas Malone: In a situation like this where the police officer who shot Leon wasn’t arrested, there was really no other avenue for justice. The difference in this case is that Leon lived through it. The whitewashing that the facts often get didn’t happen in this situation. If he hadn’t survived, then their version of the story—that the officers shot him because he dragged them with his car—would have survived the paperwork, and they’d have gone about their business. There is a ton of information that we got through the civil discovery process.
It took almost years of pretrial motions for Leon Ford to get his day in court against the officers who profiled him, harassed him and attempted to kill him. But during that process and the trial, it came out that the officers in question, Michael Kosko, Andrew Miller and David Derbish, had all left their microphones in their squad cars when they pulled Ford over. After years of Ford insisting that he complied with everything the officers asked, only through trial was it revealed and proven through a distant microphone that he asked, “Can I just get my ticket and go home?” while the officers screamed, “Fuck you, you’re talking to the cops,” and “You better get your black ass out of the car when police tell you to get out of the car.”
It was also made clear during the trial that the police lied by claiming that they thought Ford had a gun, claiming they saw an unnatural bulge, but only two of the three officers mentioned it in their report because they hadn’t had time to get their stories together.
TR: Leon, you were one of the first “Black Lives Matter” stories. You were shot the same year that Trayvon Martin was killed. You’ve seen Ferguson, Tamir Rice and other stories. What have the last five years taught you about America’s criminal-justice system? Are things getting better or worse?
LF: The last five years have taught me that most people are happy with lip service. When I think of how they have stepped out and spoke about police brutality—there’s gonna come a time when they’re gonna put up or shut up. When they do give that lip service, they stand behind policies that encourage brutality and racial division.
TM: I’ve seen some change. We showed up for [civil trial] jury selection with 94 people—not ONE African American on the panel. One of the prospective jurors asked me a question which is rare—most prospective jurors don’t ask anything—she said, “Is this fair that Leon’s jury is going to be all white people?” That’s change. At least somebody noticed that. There were a couple Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Pakistani people in the jury pool but nobody black, and it’s supposed to be a jury of his peers. I’m proud of the work we did. I’m proud of the fact that we live to fight another day.
TR: Leon, what’s next for you in the trial, in activism and even personally? I’ve seen online that you’re able to walk now with some assistance, which is a miracle. What new activism will you be engaging in going forward?
LF: Personally, I did write a book—that’s on ice until this case is finished. I’ll be out at universities sharing my story. Helping families that are experiencing the same thing around the country. Moving forward with my rehabilitation.
TM: Oct. 20, we will stand ready to go and pick a new jury—and try this case again and make sure justice gets done.
If you want to be inspired, take a look at video of Ford finally being able to walk on his own, five years after being shot by police. He’s benefited from several rehabilitation centers in Pittsburgh and even the use of exoskeleton technology that allows him to move without a walker. He also plans to meet with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and discuss ways that his tragic experience can be prevented in the lives of others.