A Highland Park traffic stop that resulted in a teenager being shot by a Pittsburgh police officer has many asking questions and the community asking for a thorough and transparent investigation as to what really happened.
Leon Ford, 19, was shot in the chest three times when he allegedly dragged a police officer during what many say should have been a “routine” traffic stop near Stanton Avenue in Highland Park, only blocks from his home, on the evening of Nov. 12.
“How does a routine traffic stop result in the shooting (of a teenager),” said Brandi Fisher of the Alliance for Police Accountability, who hosted a press conference with the family on Nov. 14 at the St. Lawrence O’Toole Center. “There are still a lot of questions as to why the officer entered the car. Mr. Ford is charged with endangering a police officer, when the officer put himself in danger.”
According to police, Ford was pulled over due to traffic violations. Ford gave them his license and registration and after verifying it, officers began to question Ford and asked him to step out of the vehicle, but Ford refused and began moving his hand as if he was reaching for something. That’s when the officer monitoring the passenger side of the vehicle, who in other reports has been identified as Officer David Derbish, opened the door of the vehicle and reached in to grab Ford’s hand. They say Ford then began to drive off and to avoid being dragged the officer jumped in the passenger’s side demanding Ford stop and Ford began to try and push him out of the vehicle. The officer then fired several shots, hitting Ford in the chest three times. Ford’s vehicle then crashed into a cement retaining wall and he was taken to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, where he is now recovering. He is expected to live.
The officer was treated for a hand injury and is on leave, which is police procedure, and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Homicide Squad is currently conducting an internal investigation with oversight by the Allegheny County District Attorney Office.
But many are asking why Ford was not just cited and let go, why he would pull off, but also, why the officer would reach into the vehicle, which Fisher said is against police training.
Police Chief Nate Harper declined to comment on the incident due to the investigation.
“The family feels the officer tried to harm him, which is why he pulled off,” said Fisher. Along with the call for a thorough investigation, the press conference was also a call for Ford’s mother, Latonya Green, to gain access to see her son, which she had been denied. However, Green said she has been able to see her son and he is doing better.
“It was wonderful to see him. That’s all I asked for. My prayers were answered,” said Green. She wouldn’t comment on the incident and said, “I haven’t had the time to wrap my head around what’s happened. My only concern at this point is his health and trying to get more visits.”
Fisher said they are waiting to get Ford’s side of the story.
There have been several police involved shootings in the City of Pittsburgh within recent years. Fisher said the city is facing two lawsuits for the actions of the police, one from Jordan Miles and the other from the mother of Lawrence Jones Jr., who was killed last December during a traffic stop for loud music. Authorities said he was trying to flee and that he was believed to have had a gun. The lawsuit says Jones was unarmed.
Fisher said it is becoming alarming and an epidemic that at routine traffic stops someone could die or be near death.
Khalid Raheem, of the National Council for Urban Peace and Justice, said “I think that because of the composition of the police force in Pittsburgh, and surrounding areas, there’s a tendency for officers, which are mostly White males, to presume that when they come across a Black person, especially a Black male, they presume they are criminals. Often times they make that presumption on something that is not concrete…or they use the drug thing as justification…the system is broken and it needs to be corrected,” he said.
Raheem said he feels the power of the Citizens Review Board needs to be strengthened, there needs to be measures in place to identify who the police are stopping and why, and that the police need to take an internal look at their procedures and who is being recruited.
Fisher says she would like to see a federal investigation conducted into the Pittsburgh Police, a review of the contract between the Fraternal Order of Police and the City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh police chief and his administration need to take a stronger stance.
Richard Garland, of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health’s Center for Health Equity, said that he feels there needs to be diversity training for police officers, since most of the force who are going into the Black communities are all White, and that a bridge needs to be created to bring together the community and the law enforcement. “We have to look at both sides of the fence and we have to find a common ground.”
Garland said the building begins with Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. “The Mayor has to step up and engage in the community. There is all this focus on Downtown, what about the rest of Pittsburgh?”
Raheem agreed that there needs to be a better relationship between the police and the community, but feels it is up to the police to do the work. “They need to conduct an honest evaluation and assessment. It is not about the community engaging the police; they need to engage us. There needs to be a serious and open dialogue. We cannot tiptoe around it.”