Police brutality survivor inspires students at Penn State Greater Allegheny

MCKEESPORT, Pa. —“We’re all on a journey. Things happen. I can’t control what they did to me, but I can control how I respond to it," said Leon Ford, a survivor of police brutality who came to the Penn State Greater Allegheny community to speak about his experience.

The 19-year-old Ford, a Pittsburgh native, was driving to his grandmother’s house on a Sunday afternoon. He was looking forward to a typical Sunday dinner with great food, football on television, and jokes with his extended family. He played football and loved boxing. He was interested in in photography and videography, just a regular kid trying to figure out what to do with his life.

He was pulled over by police for a routine traffic stop. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Three Pittsburgh officers pulled him over in Highland Park on Nov. 11, 2012. They thought he was another man who was wanted, although Mr. Ford produced identification. The officers testified at trial they asked Mr. Ford to get out of his car but he refused, and Officer David Derbish got inside the car. The car slipped into gear, and Officer Derbish fired five shots, paralyzing Mr. Ford.”

Ford woke up in the Intensive Care Unit, able to do nothing but blink. Doctors told him he’d never walk again.

Nearly five years later, Ford came to the Penn State Greater Allegheny community to speak about his experience. He speaks not of hatred and resentment, but positivity, life, and hope. He chooses to live his live with a sense of purpose, and to educate and heal communities.  

Johnathan White, instructor in history, invited Ford to speak at Greater Allegheny.   White said, “I had only met him once before at an event early this year. His story was powerful and I thought the entire Penn State community should hear him. He graciously agreed to share his story with us.”        

Ford has said that when he lost the use of his legs, he had to search deep inside himself. The physicality he took pride in before was gone. But he found a deep joy. He tries to find purpose in every aspect of his life. Whether it’s the music he listens to, or movies he watched, or books he reads, he makes sure its meaningful.  He said, “I ask myself, ‘Is it positive, productive, purposeful?’”

When asked if he hated cops, Ford responded with a surprising, “No. I actually want to inspire and encourage young people to become police officers and community leaders.” He says that individuals who care are the ones who can make a difference.  Ford tells how he was shot before the Black Lives Matter movement existed. At the time, he reached out to a number of different organizations, but none wanted to help. “But people, individual people, some whom I didn’t even know, came out to support me," he said. "Sometimes groups are watered down, but individuals care from a level in their gut, in their soul.”

Ford is determined to prove his doctors wrong. He has begun using leg braces to help him stand and walk. He said, “Things take time. I’ve been extremely patient. I’ve stayed positive, worked hard. I believe one day I will be able to stand up and walk.”   

Ford uses his story to encourage people to be proactive in every aspect of their lives. He says that if you see something starting, you should face it. Don’t wait until something bad happens to you or your family. Don’t swoop down in self-pity. “If I fall, I fall. I know how to get back up. I had to teach myself how to get dressed, to drive. I never place limitations on myself. Nothing can defeat me.”