Editor’s Note: New episodes of the podcast “The Assignment with Audie Cornish” drop every Thursday. Click here to listen to her latest episode on Life After the Traffic Stop.
The footage of Tyre Nichols’ deadly police arrest is hard to watch, but for those who have survived brutal police encounters, it can be unbearable.
“I’m very intentional about not watching those types of videos. They are extremely triggering for me,” said Leon Ford, who survived a police shooting and now works as an activist for the social change organization The Hear Foundation. “I’d encourage people not to watch them because it’s going to weigh on you.”
In the CNN podcast “The Assignment,” Audie Cornish spoke with two Black men who say they, like Nichols, have experienced police brutality first-hand and survived.
Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was kicked, punched and pepper sprayed by a group of Memphis officers last month in Tennessee, an incident that led to his death days later and widespread protests after footage of the brutal encounter was released.
Ford was shot by Pittsburgh police in 2012 after being pulled over for a traffic stop by officers seeking a suspect with a similar name, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. One of the bullets left the then 19 year old paralyzed from the waist down. The officers involved in the shooting were never criminally charged. Ford was awarded $5.5 million in a civil lawsuit against the city, the Post-Gazette reported.
“I didn’t want to live. I felt like I had no purpose after being shot,” said Ford. “I felt worthless.”
Tim Alexander said he was shot at and struck by Newark police in 1985 when he was 19, a lawsuit obtained by Politico from the time details. He was arrested after being misidentified by police. A grand jury refused to indict the officers involved. He filed a civil lawsuit against the officers and department, which ended in a settlement for an undisclosed amount, according to Politico.
“I didn’t have the support that I have now. I believe that public opinion in regard to police has shifted significantly since then,” said Ford, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2022.
Today, when people send Ford videos showing police using violence, he says he instantly deletes the messages.
Alexander, however, has watched the footage of Nichols’ arrest “over and over again.”
“I could barely get through it once,” Cornish said, stunned by his response during the podcast.
Alexander said he felt like a homicide investigator watching the video, trying to understand what happened in detail. He’s now a lawyer focused on civil rights and a former law enforcement officer.
“I’ve never seen an officer – or even heard of an officer – standing somebody up off the ground because your job is to get control and be done, but they stood [Nichols] up so they could punch him back down,” said Alexander. “It bothered me to no end. And it bothers me still.”
The two survivors were split on watching the video of the arrest. But if you decide to watch it, they agreed on several pieces of advice.
First, don’t take this content lightly – these are people, not a hashtag.
“I would remind people that these are real people on these videos,” said Ford. “This is not a movie. This is real life.”
Second, they recommend not sharing the traumatic video with victims and their families; they may be choosing to abstain. Watching violent police encounters makes some people relive their experiences.
“I see how sharing these videos causes more harm to the families than good,” said Ford.
And finally, be aware of the collateral damage around these deadly events.
“There are six families that were destroyed that night,” said Alexander referring to the families of the Memphis officers who were terminated in the immediate aftermath of Nichols’ death. “When 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 that day that person graduated from the police academy.”
It’s important to keep your humanity and not become desensitized, they said. Try to empathize with all the families that are impacted.
“You can’t even imagine the horror that the victim’s family is going through, as well as the perpetrator’s family,” Alexander said.