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Author Q&A

Leon Ford was shot by police. Now he’s their partner in community healing

The author of “An Unspeakable Hope” writes about mental health, redefining justice, and how to build a better policing system

Alex LaSalvia

Leon Ford is not your typical activist. In his upcoming memoir, “An Unspeakable Hope,” Ford shares the hardships and bright spots of his upbringing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the life-changing night in 2012 when the 19-year-old was shot by Pittsburgh police officer David Derbish.

Ford was driving to his grandmother’s for dinner when he was pulled over by police, who were searching for a Lamont Ford, wanted on criminal charges. Despite showing them his ID and insisting there’d been a mistake, the police started pulling Ford out of the car. Fearing for his life, Ford panicked and started driving away, not noticing that Derbish had climbed in the passenger seat. Derbish shot five bullets into Ford’s side. He lost the use of his legs and began a long journey to healing mentally and physically.

After nearly dying in the hospital, Ford was charged with aggravated assault on the officers, of which he was acquitted. He then sued the police department and reached a $5.5 million settlement with the city of Pittsburgh. Derbish remained on the police force.

All of his story is important, because it all informs the work he does today.

Ford has experienced police brutality firsthand. He’s experienced how racism and corruption permeate our judicial system. He’s seen how desperation and environment leads good people to take criminal acts. He knows anger and he knows hate, but — after many years of therapy and personal work — he has chosen a different path.

Ford is committed to a philosophy of healing and solving problems through raw, honest talk between stakeholders on an issue, with neutral, respected mediators, not a public audience. This journey eventually led him to sit down with Detective Derbish and find common ground with the man who nearly killed him.

In an interview with The Emancipator, he spoke about why we normalize trauma, how to redefine justice, and what he thinks a positive policing system would look like. Ford doesn’t need you to agree with everything he says, he just needs you to hear him and look for the solutions. He says that’s how we find a way out of the mess we’re in.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Alex LaSalvia: You lay out a view that we are all flawed and shaped by our environments, we need to be called out for our wrongdoing, but also deserve grace, and that we’re not going to solve problems by only punishing people. How did you arrive at this philosophy and how does it shape the work you do today?

Leon Ford: Family and community helped shape that philosophy, growing up in an environment where people were forced to survive. And they may not have always made the best decisions, but these were really good people. I think that showed me the importance of grace and context.

I’m a huge advocate for redemption. When we give people grace, and we’re understanding of what their lived experiences have been, then we can pull them into the light. But when we condemn people, when we ostracize people based on a perspective we may not agree with, or an action we may not agree with, we send them further into that darkness. I believe that love, redemption, and reconciliation are solutions to heal a lot of the darkness that we have in our personal lives and our community, in our country, and ultimately in the world.

You write about your frustration with the lawyers that you had for your case and their attempts to sanitize your image and your background. Can you talk about the problems with this myth that you call the “perfect victim?”

The myth around a perfect victim assumes that you have to be perfect in order to receive justice, or in order to have support during your fight for justice. Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and he never said that you have to be perfect to benefit from a just society. I think it’s really problematic when we judge people based on past mistakes, and not look at that unjust moment they may have experienced from someone else.

Whenever there is injustice, there’s an opportunity for us to learn, for us to collaborate to find a meaningful solution. But when we try to sanitize people, we don’t consider their stories. When I think about the night I was shot and the traffic stop, I was 19 years old. I was so afraid for my life. And there’s a whole story behind why I didn’t trust police officers based on my father’s experience, based on my personal experiences as a preteen, so that context is very important. To try to sanitize that takes away from the solutions. I think it’s important for us to be honest, and authentic, and focused on the injustice in order to create more just interactions with police and community.

Tell us about those solutions and your organization, how you got involved and the mission that you’re pursuing there.

Shortly after George Floyd was murdered, I went on a rant on social media and called the former chief of police racist, called the former mayor racist, and said they didn’t care about Black people. I was very hostile to them, but that was true to how I felt in that moment. And one of my mentors reached out to me, and connected me with the former police chief of Pittsburgh, Scott Schubert. When I was able to sit down with Scott, I really was able to hear his story, which humanized him. And he was able to hear my story, which helped humanize me. And there were so many things that we disagreed on. However, we were able to lean into those things that we did agree on, which were mental health, gun violence reduction, and workforce development. And those things that we leaned in on ended up becoming our three pillars for the foundation that we launched, called the Hear Foundation.

Now we’re building relationships between police and community by facilitating those relationships. I’m having several meetings every week, breakfast, lunch, dinner, happy hour, bringing in activists and law enforcement together. And these are large groups. This is really in-the-weeds type of work. I’ll let one person share their story and perspective and ideas, another person share their story perspective and ideas. It gets very intense. It’s not cute, at all. There’s tears involved, there’s some yelling sometimes. But then I always bring it in and say, “Okay, cool, what’s the solution?” And that one sentence changes the direction of the conversation.

How transformative would it be to take mental health seriously?

I think that taking mental health more seriously can completely transform culture within communities. When you have gun violence in communities, when you have police violence, when you have mentor burnout, and teachers burned out because they lost students to gun violence, it’s really a public health crisis. You don’t have to get shot by a police officer to experience trauma. Sometimes people feel like they shouldn’t talk about how they’re feeling mentally because they haven’t been shot, because they haven’t lost a loved one, and I think that is a misconception of mental health. I just encourage people not to compare their trauma with somebody else’s experience, because those experiences are relative to that individual.

I’ve been thinking about even my upbringing and the different friends and people from the community that I know who are incarcerated now for violent crimes. These are people that experienced violent crimes early on in their lives. I have a friend serving a life sentence right now for a murder, and I remember his father was murdered when we were in the fifth grade. So, what happens if that fifth grader who lost his father had access to therapy?

When I was in eighth grade, my sister was killed, she was hit by a truck. And that completely changed a lot of my life. If you look at my transcripts, I had high honor roll up until the eighth grade. So as an educator, just looking at the transcripts, you will say, “Well, as he became a preteen, he began to act out,” but there’s context, right? To go back to the grace and understanding, if you understand that my sister was killed a year before I went to high school, you’d have more grace for me, and you can help me talk to a therapist, or to some type of councilor, which didn’t happen. I went back to school the day after my sister’s funeral, which, I probably needed more time to get myself together, mentally. I think it’s very important for us to be mindful of what people are going through internally. We should do it before they act out, but especially when they’re acting out, because there’s something deeper. Grace doesn’t mean a lack of accountability. You can have understanding and grace and still hold someone accountable. I’m a huge advocate of having these types of discussions, and I wish that we could be more intentional about helping people deal with their mental health.

Has your experience so far in the work that you’ve been doing given you hope that we can change these systems to make sure that we’re more focused on these contexts?

Absolutely. I think like, for me personally, I think you need activists, you need thought leaders, you need attorneys, and you need all these types of people, but for me, personally, my way of changing the system is going within, building these relationships, having real discussions with real people, humanizing them, and helping to engage them in these conversations around mental health, around redemption, around reconciliation, and around justice.

It’s interesting because building relationships with law enforcement is very similar to talking to my uncles and cousins and neighbors, where they have experienced so much trauma that they normalize — they almost don’t even see it as traumatic.

To help them talk about that stuff, but then to also connect them to resources where they can really figure out how to articulate their lived experiences, it’s a first step. When you’re able to help humanize people, help them find that liberation, then they begin to advocate for the same types of healing for their family, their loved ones and their friends.

You call for heavy reforms of policing, but you don’t go as far as to say we should abolish the police. In your view, what does a police system that is a positive force in the community look like?

I think about those communities where wealthy people live. I have some friends who absolutely are at ease when they see a police officer, and then I have friends who freak out internally when they see police officers. So I believe a sign of healthy policing is when every resident of whatever community can have that same ease that my more privileged friends have when they see police officers. To get there takes a lot of reform internally. I think there’s a lot of how police officers are trained that’s not only harmful to the community, it’s harmful to police officers. And I think that a lot of police officers won’t share their grievances with their agency publicly, but there are a lot of grievances within agencies.

Here’s an example. I’ve witnessed situations where I can clearly tell a police officer is traumatized. Body language, mood, all those things. And then you have someone from the community who’s also traumatized with their life trauma, but also, they don’t trust police officers. So immediately, they become defensive and kind of defiant. As a professional, the police officer lacks the ability to understand the trauma that this person has gone through, their distrust for police. And then it becomes an ego match between two individuals who are severely traumatized. And no one has the capacity to take it down a notch, to breathe.

A lot of times I hear police officers say, “Well, the person should de-escalate.” That is a part of our survival, to de-escalate, and it’s in our best interest to de-escalate, but it’s not our profession. I think, as a profession, police officers should be trained better in de-escalation and understanding mental health and their own mental health.

For me, personally, I understand my triggers. And so when I’m dealing with loved ones, friends, community, police officers, I recognize when I’m triggered, because I’m very self aware. And I would like police officers to be able to have that same level of self awareness when they’re engaging with whomever within the community.

One of the reasons why I don’t lean more into the conversation around abolishing the police, is because I believe that our society right now is sick, and so we need those mental health counselors, we need better policing. I’ve learned how much of policing, how much social work they do that they’re not trained to do, which is a very heavy lift. So if we can deploy more social workers, more mental health advocates, to work alongside police officers, I think that will be very helpful, because you have people calling the police officers to say, “I need my son to leave the house,” or, “My son didn’t go to school.” And that’s not really their job, but they show up, and it perpetuates the stereotypes and this feeling of oppression, especially when police officers aren’t equipped with those tools to help in that social capacity. You do find some police officers who have a heart for social work and social justice, but as an institution, I think that needs to be implemented.

A lot of activism today focuses on the need for justice. Even us at The Emancipator, one of our slogans is “Journalism, justice, joy.” But you have a bit of a different take in your book. Can you explain your idea that justice is a bit of an illusion? Do you think it’s still a worthwhile thing to aspire to, even if we can’t fully achieve it, or is it the wrong goal to work towards?

Justice has become a word similar to love. I can tell you I love you right now, but what am I actually saying? People have many different definitions of love and many different definitions of justice. In my book, when I’m describing justice, in the sense of my personal experience, I don’t think that you can balance the scales, from someone who was shot, or murdered, or beat. Because even if somebody paralyzed the officer who shot me, even if something bad happened to someone in his family, that doesn’t balance out what I experienced in my life.

And so, I think it’s important for us to define what justice looks like. Because a settlement is not justice. They print money, they don’t print legs, and even if I miraculously began to walk tomorrow, you can’t take away from the 10 years of trauma and the several layers of trauma that I experienced. That’s very, very difficult. But I do believe that you can create what justice looks like for yourself.

I’m trying to restore some type of balance in my life. And for me, I find that balance through purpose. My life now having a purpose makes me believe somewhere deep down in my heart, that maybe this was destined for me. Now I get to make a difference. Now I get to impact the lives of hopefully millions of people, and to me, that’s justice.

“An Unspeakable Hope” will be available in bookstores May 9.

Alex LaSalvia can be reached at alex.lasalvia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexlasalvia.