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Podcast: What happens to the lives of those who survive violent encounters with police? Audie Cornish hears from two survivors


Fiery Twitter threads and endless news notifications never capture the full story. Each week on The Assignment, host Audie Cornish pulls listeners out of their digital echo chambers to hear from the people who live the headlines. From the sex work economy to the battle over what’s taught in classrooms, no topic is off the table. Listen to The Assignment every Thursday. 

Life After the Traffic Stop

The Assignment with Audie Cornish

Feb 2, 2023

What is it like to survive a violent police encounter? As the world processes the beating and death of Tyre Nichols, we hear from two men whose encounters with police changed their lives: Leon Ford is an author, speaker, and co-founder of The Hear Foundation. He was shot by Pittsburgh police in 2012 after being pulled over for a traffic stop. And Tim Alexander is a lawyer, politician, and former Detective Captain for the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office. He was “shot at, assaulted, and falsely arrested because of misidentification” by police officers in Newark in May 1985.

I have run out of words to describe video footage of police officers kneeling on or choking or shooting or striking or beating a person they suspect of a crime. And if you count the beating of Rodney King in 1991, I’ve been trying to make sense of these images since I was 12. And despite acquittal after acquittal after acquittal, four officers involved, we are told that these videos are valuable, that body cams or dash cams will change the behavior that leads to excessive force by police officers, that they’ll provide clarity and evidence in judicial cases, even though research has shown it does neither. And then we in journalism assume it’s a civic duty to show every minute. And some say it’s a moral obligation for you to watch them so that you might be moved to act. But I have run out of words. And so, I wanted to hear from people who have survived the traffic stop that could have ended in death. I wanted to hear from people who have, for lack of a better word, starred in the kind of grim movie that we’ve all gotten used to seeing. What did they learn from their brush with police brutality? How did they survive the aftermath or the scrutiny from people who insist that they did something to deserve it? How do they move on when there is always another video? I’m Audie Cornish, and this is The Assignment. There are the facts, and then there is “the story.”

Personally, I don’t like going into the details of what happened to me. I’ve probably told the story several thousands of times, and each time that I share, I relive what happened.

This is Leon Ford. In 2012, he was 19 and living in Pittsburgh. And there is police dash cam video of his traffic stop. Ford was pulled over by officers who believed he was a suspect with a similar name. Leon Ford showed his valid driver’s license and car registration and this was not enough. Another officer was called to the scene to verify that Leon Ford was not the person they were looking for. And during this traffic stop, Leon refused to get out of the car. At one point, he drove away with an officer in the passenger side of the vehicle. That officer fired five shots into Leon’s chest. One of the bullets paralyzed him from the waist down. The officers involved were never criminally charged. Ford was awarded 5.5 million in a civil trial against the city. Today, Leon Ford is co-founder of a social change organization called The Here Foundation, one he co-founded with a former Pittsburgh Police Chief.

Sometimes I tell the story and it does affect me emotionally because it puts me right back on Ludlow Street in Newark.

Now, this is Tim Alexander.

And then sometimes I tell the story, as a matter of fact, that, all right, this is what happened to me. This is why we have to have change. So it depends on my audience. It depends on where my head is at the time of telling the story.

In May of 1985, Tim Alexander was 19 years old. He was visiting his grandparents in Newark after the death of his father. He saw three men in regular street clothes get out of a nearby car. Those men began shouting orders at Tim. He tried to drive away, but they shot at him and missed. Tim got out of the car, tossed his keys and wallet down. He tried to walk away. They struck him in the knees with a flashlight. They struck him in the stomach as they arrested him and placed him in their car. They kept insisting he was someone he was not. Now a grand jury refused to indict the officers involved and his civil suit ended in a settlement for an undisclosed amount. Despite his encounter, Tim went on to become a law enforcement officer — a Detective Captain for the Atlantic City prosecutor’s office. And today, he’s a lawyer —focused on civil rights. Our conversation begins with Leon Ford.

Personally, I don’t like going into the details of what happened to me. I’ve probably told the story several thousands of times, and each time that I share, I relive what happened. And Tim, I would think when you share this story, how far into the details do you go? Because you know me personally, obviously, I was shot five times by a Pittsburgh police officer. However, some people want to know those moment by moment details and they have questions because they’re curious. And as a survivor of a police shooting, that’s like, like people want to really dive deep into the details of my experience in a way that I’m pretty sure they won’t inquire about other people’s experiences.

First, let me say, Leon, I’m really sorry you’ve had these experiences. No one should have to go through this. For me, I used to go into great detail on a story. There, and there, were some versions I would tell that have inside information that only my family know. And I did run for office and you have a team and they tend to manage you and they manage your your time and how much time you spend talking about personal experiences. And so, my story got abbreviated. You know, you’re going to long and it’s interesting, but people really want to get to the point. So I got away from telling the story the way I was most comfortable telling it. There’s kind of like a, a super long version, a long version, and then a more mechanical version.

And Leon, for you, you’re an activist now. Have you gone through the same process? Has your story become smoothed out, in a way, as you have to keep telling it for the sort of public consumption?

Yeah, I would say that I haven’t. It’s interesting because obviously I do a lot of community work, but, you know, I don’t really consider myself like an activist. It’s a label that I picked up along the way of my work. And so, you know, I never had a team to help me structure my story in a way that would be most impactful. I kind of leverage my story and my experiences as a tool to evoke change in the world that I’m most comfortable sharing it.

Leon, this is Tim. If you don’t mind me asking, what year did you have to go through that? What year did you experience that?

It was 2012 and I was 19 years old when it happened.

So do you find that today it’s harder or easier or about the same to tell the story?

I find that today, I’m just exhausted. To go back to 2012, I didn’t have a lot of support, you know, I didn’t have the support that I have now. I believe that public opinion in regards to police has shifted significantly since then. And, you know, I’ve experienced the viral moments and then several months at a time or sometimes years where it seems that people have moved on from this issue, until the next police shooting or beating. And then people are riled up for a couple of months, and then it goes away again, and then it comes back after another incident. And so this is where a little, my frustration comes because we are experiencing another moment where this is going to be the center of discussion here in America. And maybe five months from now, most people will move on.

Leon, let me jump in here because Tim Alexander, you you were 19, is that correct?

I was thinking the same thing. I was, I was, that’s correct. I was 19. And I was going to ask Leon. For me, this is the very first time — I’m 57 today — the very first time I’ve had an opportunity to talk to someone who had shared experiences. I’ve never had this conversation with a person who was shot or shot at by the police before. So I’m, I’m more interested, I know I have to participate, but I’d be more interested in sitting here just listening to you than anything else, because I get to reflect on myself, hearing what you went through. Of course, the bullet missed me and it was only one. But it’s just amazing to me. It really is.

Leon Ford, what was it like for you to hear of what happened with the Nichols case? This video, the way it was talked about, Tyre Nichols, this video, it was, people were really trying to brace the public for the worst. Did you watch it?

No, I haven’t seen the video. I haven’t read about any of the details. Obviously, people have sent it to me via text and on social media. However, I’m very intentional about not watching those types of videos. They are extremely triggering for me. And, you know, I have people sending me, you know, police shootings and beatings weekly. And so it’s it’s really hard for me to keep up with all of these incidents.

But they think that you’re going to want to see it. Like, hey, look at this, it’s another one.

Exactly. And I don’t, you know what I mean? You know, when I get those messages and I see what they’re sending me, I just instantly delete the messages.

Tim Alexander for you, did you watch the video of Tyre Nichols’ beating?

I did. So I watched the video. And when I saw that video and I broke it down and I watched it over and over again, I broke up different clips of it.

Wait, I’m sorry. What? You, wait. Can we pause?

You watched it several times.

I watched the video, all four clips, several times.

I could barely get through it once. So, tell me how you managed to sit through it multiple times in multiple segments and why you wanted to do that to yourself?

Well, I wanted to understand what happened. I wanted to be able to talk intelligently about what each officer did. And, you know, when they’re telling him all these different things. And it was clear that they weren’t, they weren’t speaking to reality. So, you know. When they, when they, I’ve never seen this before. And I’m going to tell you this in all honesty. I’ve never seen a officer or even heard of an officer standing somebody up, standing somebody up off the ground, because you’re your job is to get control and be done. But they stood them up so that they could punch them back down. I’ve never seen that. That, that, it bothered me to no end. And it bothers me still.

We talked briefly about the aftermath, so to speak. How does it start to shape you going forward? And Leon, I’ll start with you, because obviously you had, you were paralyzed, like you had this physical injury to recover from. Can you talk about how that process, how it shaped you going forward?

You know, I questioned God a lot. Because I didn’t want to live, I felt like I had no purpose after being shot. And fortunately, I had a son.

Can I, when did those moments come? Is this when you’re in rehab? Is this when you’re in court, right? Because there were the legal action after in civil court. Can you talk about what that process was?

Immediately. Once I found out, I was paralyzed, I never known anyone, you know, who had a a physical disability. And so a lot of my perspective of being a man was dependent on my physicality. I was very athletic. I was a boxer, you know, a hard worker. And that was taken away from me, you know. And so I felt worthless. My son, I had a son. I have a son. He’s ten years old now. He was born in the hospital where I was recovering. So he really gave me a lot of purpose and a lot of hope. That’s where I pull my inspiration from I say, you know, to myself, how can I be a great father? And what type of example do I want to leave for my son? And so my leadership, my activism, really came from thinking about how I wanted to create a world for my son. It was very, very difficult for me to figure out the next steps, especially when, you know, there was an assumption that I was guilty. And so I felt like I had to become the perfect victim. And in the beginning, a lot of my community organizing, a lot of my activism was in indirect alignment with this idea that people thought I was a bad person because I was shot by a police officer and I had so much to prove. And I really had, in my heart, wanted to prove to society that I didn’t deserve to get shot.

Leon Ford is a writer and community organizer. Tim Alexander is a lawyer and former law enforcement officer. Both survivors of police violence. More of our conversation in a minute. We’re in conversation with Leon Ford and Tim Alexander, two men who survived violent encounters with the police.

So I wanted to ask Leon, when he was talking earlier, you know, I didn’t realize how angry I was at times. And I, well, my wife’s not here, we’re married for 36 years, so I must be doing something right. I try to keep that anger to myself. Of course, sometimes even when you’re repressing it, it becomes a problem. But how? You know, and I think what I went through is nothing compared to what you’re suffering with. How do you manage your anger? Is that something you think about? Is there something you go to therapy for? You actively are working at that? I’m just curious if, what works for you.

Yeah, I go, I go to therapy. I am a huge advocate for therapy. And really, you know, seeing my therapist has transformed my life. I also do some meditation. I write, you know, I listen to like, I love jazz. You know, I have a whole routine, like a self-care routine that keeps me operating on a level that I need to operate on to really be effective in my work. I avoid things that are triggering. I don’t I don’t listen to, you know, a lot of violent music. I don’t watch violent videos online. You know, I stay away from that stuff because it takes me back to that place that I don’t want to be. It doesn’t feel good to me to have that level of rage that exists. You know, some days I wake up and I look at my wheelchair, you know, before I transfer into it. And I’m extremely angry. But my self-care routine really serves me in a positive way.

Tim Alexander, how do you manage your anger? Or how, what did you learn over the years?

You know, I try to find things that help me decompress. And then when all else, probably at the end of this discussion today, everything, I’ll turn off everything and I’ll just sit and not do anything. I turn the phones off. I turn everything off. And that seems to be the biggest mechanism for relief for me. I guess is a form of meditation without any formal training in that regard. Sometimes I fall asleep, but for the most part I just try to just take it all down. My wife is a therapist, a mental health therapist, and it does help to talk to her. And she, she is, she’s really good. You know, she doesn’t give me answers, but she’s good. So I have, I have that as well. I have a built in therapist. I believe that I belong here. I belong in this arena. I’ve experienced the things I’ve experienced for this purpose. And now it’s my duty to perform and produce. And when we have some success, it’s a great day. It really is. There’s no feeling like it. You just got to work hard for those days.

Hey, Tim, I’m curious because I really admire your ability to lean in, you know, and lean into the work. So I’m curious, how do you separate your personal feelings and your personal experience from the work? Because it seems like even watching the video, you’re able to view it from the lens of your work experience. How do you channel that? Like, how do you separate the two? And also, when you’re viewing these videos from the lens of your profession, how often do your personal experiences show up in those feelings?

I’ll tell you, it’s a great question because, you know, I had to kind of answer that question for myself. Why did this video affect me differently than George Floyd? And George Floyd, you talk about triggers, George Floyd broke me down. It just, it just devastated me. In this case, I almost immediately went into investigator mode. I wanted to know. I had my police practices and procedures hat on one side, but I wanted to know every single person who had some culpability in the death of this young man. So to answer your question, I flip flop. And that, you know, my personal experiences were really at the surface in George Floyd. And on this one, it was more like, I’m a homicide investigator and I’m trying to find everybody responsible for the death of this young man. And that’s how I was able to get through all those videos and then look at them again in.

There are going to be people who, how do I say this? These kinds of videos, in a way, they’re a kind of entertainment, right? We have like decades of the show Cops where people are entertained by video of arrests and chases and things like that. And there’s something about the increased use of dash cams, etc., and body cams. We’re going to see more of these kinds of videos. And I think it’s very easy to not see the victims as people anymore. Like it’s another name, it’s another hashtag. What message would you have for people who feel like they’re seeing these all the time and there’s a kind of fatigue about it?

Yeah, Leon, again. I, I would remind people that these are real people on these videos, right? This is not a movie. This is a real life that is beaten, that is shot, whatever happens in the video. And so, unless you’re an expert and somebody who may be an attorney trying to figure out ways to seek justice or to prevent this from happening, I’d encourage people not to watch them. Because, you know, it’s going to weigh on you. And then, two, it’s, you know, it’s very traumatic to share these videos and have people’s relatives, you know, watch the video and have to relive the video over and over again. And so it causes a lot of harm. I mentor, you know, several mothers who lost children to police violence. And I think people like to, they want to support these mothers. But the way the movement moves on social media, from personal experience, I see how sharing these videos causes more harm to the families than good.

Tim Alexander, your message to people who are, who are seeing these videos and what would you want them to know?

So I have to adopt much of what Leon said and only add that I would ask if you’re starting to be desensitized by watching this type of video, then maybe check the way you’re watching. Realize that this is a real human being that is going through this suffering. But then also think of it this way, that in this case, there’s six families that were destroyed that night. When you, you have a video that shows your child kicking a young man in the head over and over again and having him stand up so you could punch him in the face over and over again, and that child’s wearing a badge. And you think of how proud you were the day that person graduated from the police academy and that they took that job and they posed for that photo, and you were all having a good time. Those families are now destroyed too. That’s all at the hands of the accused, don’t get me wrong. Put blame where it belongs. But it may help you understand and keep humanity when you watch these type of incidents that you don’t, you can’t become desensitized when you, you can’t even imagine the horror that the victim’s family is going through, as well as the perpetrators family. But for the most part, humanity speaks to us to say that we should empathize with all the families that are involved.

Well, Tim Alexander, thank you so much for speaking with me.

It was my absolute pleasure. And Leon, I hope we can stay in touch. I hope we have a much longer conversation someday.

And Leon Ford, I want to thank you for speaking with us as well.

It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Leon Ford is an author, speaker, and co-founder of The Here Foundation, which works with Pittsburgh police and the city to build safe communities. And his new book is available for preorder, it’s called “An Unspeakable Hope: Brutality, Forgiveness, and Building a Better Future for My Son.” And Tim Alexander is a lawyer, politician, and former detective captain for the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office. He lives in New Jersey. New episodes of The Assignment drop every Thursday, so please listen and follow wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. Yeah, it matters. The Assignment is a production of CNN Audio. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai and Lori Galarreta. Our associate producers are Isoke Samuel, Allison Park and Sonia Htoon. Our senior producers are Haley Thomas and Matt Martinez. Our editor is Rina Palta. Mixing and Sound Design by David Schulman. Dan Dzula is our technical director. Abbie Fentress Swanson is our executive producer. And special thanks to Katie Hinman. I’m Audie Cornish. Thank you for listening.