Texas Rangers investigating 5 Williamson County use of force cases

Investigations

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) – Screams filled the stairwell outside apartment 1130 as Williamson County Sheriff’s Deputy Lorenzo Hernandez approached. Hernandez attempted to get inside the apartment to search it, but the woman inside tried to stop him.

“Who else is in here?” Hernandez asked as he walked toward the woman, who kept one hand on the door handle as the original responding deputy, Amanda Pereira, stood to the side.

Within seconds two more deputies tried to put her into handcuffs.

“Let go of the door, or you’re going to be tased,” the deputies told her.  

The woman continued screaming and holding onto the door handle, while deputies tried to handcuff her. Deputies told the woman they were going inside her home to search for an unidentified man involved in the original 9-1-1 call.

This Sept. 21, 2019 body camera video shows Williamson County Deputy Lorenzo Hernandez attempting to get inside a victim’s home to search for a suspect in a domestic violence call at an apartment complex. (Williamson County Sheriff’s Office video)

The video shows the woman yelling as Hernandez placed a hand around her chin and then pushed her head down against a wall. Deputies then attempted to pull the woman’s arm behind her back and put her in handcuffs.

Multiple body cameras worn by deputies captured the September 2019 encounter, which began with a 911 call reporting domestic violence between a man and woman.

The woman, who asked not to be identified in this report, wouldn’t tell deputies where the man went. Deputies called the woman “uncooperative,” and the video shows her trying to hold her door closed as Hernandez pushed his way inside to search the apartment. The woman told deputies the man wasn’t inside.

Hernandez and another deputy searched each room, as deputies detained the woman outside.

“We don’t get your cooperation, that is what happens. All this screaming and all this [expletive] does not make us stop,” Hernandez told the victim as he stood in her living room near the end of the video.

Another deputy was uncuffing the woman as Hernandez lectured her.

The victim in a domestic violence call tries to hold her door closed as Williamson County deputies attempt to put her in handcuffs during this Sept. 21, 2019 incident. (Williamson County Sheriff’s Office video)

The initial 911 call led Deputy Pereira to the apartment complex. Body camera video captured Pereira telling the victim she could see marks on her neck.

The woman said she did not want to press charges and would not tell deputies the man’s “direction of travel.” Pereira later radioed in to dispatch that the “victim was being uncooperative,” according to footage of the incident obtained by KXAN.

Hernandez arrived just after Pereira. Hernandez and the third deputy on scene, identified as “D. Dickerson” in the body camera file, searched the apartment. The deputies did not find anyone inside and later took the handcuffs off the victim.

“The next time, in the future, you don’t have the right to do that, to keep us out of your house. You do not,” Hernandez told the victim. “When we come to stuff like this, we’re going to check for safety reasons, OK? We’re going to make sure he’s not here and you’re not hiding him” Hernandez continued, as the victim was being released from custody.

The woman, who would not agree to an interview with KXAN, later learned Texas Rangers were investigating the incident and wanted to interview her.

WARNING: The following body camera video shows the woman being taken into custody

Hernandez was ultimately disciplined in this case for “sustained violation of the Sheriff’s Office Conduct and Behavior policy,” according to WCSO Chief Deputy Tim Ryle.

Hernandez was suspended, removed from the department’s Field Training Program, put on a “performance improvement plan” and retrained on de-escalation, according to Ryle.

Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick confirmed the Hernandez use of force case is one of five use of force cases involving WCSO deputies currently under investigation by the Texas Rangers.

One dead, one seriously injured

In less than three months in 2019, one man died and another was seriously injured after encounters with Williamson County deputies. Both men were involved in traffic stops with television cameras rolling for Live PD, a reality television show featuring WCSO deputies.

On March 28, 2019, deputies and Live PD camera crews recorded the “pursuit” and arrest of Javier Ambler. That pursuit started in Williamson County and ended in Austin.

The only footage made public of the Ambler arrest is from an Austin Police Department officer’s body camera. The recording begins with the APD officer getting out of his patrol SUV as Ambler passes by. The next sound recorded on the video is of tires sliding on pavement and a collision.

“10-50, 10-50, he just crashed,” the officer yelled into his radio. Ambler drove away from the crash scene and stopped a short distance later.

When the APD officer got to the scene, two Williamson County deputies and two Live PD cameramen recorded as Ambler lay on the ground with deputies shouting commands for him to put his hands behind his back.

“Do it now, or you’ll get it again,” one deputy yells at Ambler. “Give me your hand, or I’ll tase you again,” a deputy yelled in the video.

The video shows WCSO Deputy Zachary Camden with a Taser held against Ambler’s neck as another WCSO Deputy, James “JJ” Johnson, handcuffed him. Ambler was lying on his stomach beside his SUV during the video.

“Stop resisting,” a deputy told Ambler.

“Sir, I’m not resisting,” Ambler said, with labored breath. “Sir, sir I can’t breathe…I can’t breathe!” Ambler yelled as the deputies continued telling him to lie “flat on your stomach,” the video showed. Ambler continue to struggle with deputies as they attempt to handcuff him before his body appeared to fall limp and Ambler passed out, the video shows.

“Black male, heavy set, unresponsive,” the APD officer radioed in. Deputies and the APD officer made several attempts to find a pulse on Ambler.

Throughout the incident, the APD officer’s body camera shows Live PD crews pointing cameras at Ambler and the deputies.

Ambler died 72 minutes later, according to an in-custody death report submitted by APD to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. That report shows Ambler’s “medical cause of death” as “Congestive Heart Failure and Hypertensive Cardiovascular Disease Associated with Morbid Obesity, in combination with Forcible Restraint” with “Lymphocytic Myocarditis” as a contributing condition.

Both deputies used Tasers on Ambler during the struggle, after Ambler “did not immediately comply with the Deputy’s [sic] verbal commands,” APD wrote in the report.

“Once in custody, Deputies noticed the driver was un-responsive. Deputies were unable to locate a pulse and began chest compressions until EMS arrived and took over life saving [sic] interventions,” according to the report.

Face down in a pool of blood

Less than three months later, while APD continued investigating the Ambler in-custody death and the actions of Camden and Johnson, both deputies were involved in another use-of-force case with Live PD cameras in tow.

The June 14, 2019, broadcast showed deputies Mark Luera and JJ Johnson standing at the passenger side of Ramsey Mitchell’s car that Camden stopped for “no front license plate,” according to the sheriff’s use of force report provided to KXAN under the Texas Public Information Act.

This still image captured from the LivePD June 14, 2019 broadcast shows Ramsey Mitchell appeared to be unconscious lying face-down in a pool of blood after deputies placed him in handcuffs. (LivePD Video)

“Are you OK, man?” Luera asked Mitchell as the deputy commented on the amount of sweat pouring off Mitchell.

“It’s 100 degrees out here,” Mitchell responded.

“The sweat is just pouring off of you, brother,” Luera said.

Johnson then asked Mitchell to get out of his car “to check his eyes” because deputies claimed to have smelled alcohol in the car.

Seconds into Camden patting Mitchell down, Mitchell turned to run.

Over the next two minutes and 15 seconds, Luera, Camden and Johnson used stun guns, kneed and punched Mitchell multiple times while trying to get him into handcuffs. Video shows Luera put Mitchell into a chokehold while the other deputies attempted to get Mitchell’s hands behind his back.

“I can’t breathe,” Mitchell yelled out during the struggle.

“Stop fighting!” one of the deputies yelled back to Mitchell.

This still image taken from the June 14, 2019 LivePD broadcast shows Williamson County Deputy Mark Luera placing Ramsey Mitchell in a neck restraint as Deputies JJ Johnson and Zachary Camden attempt to handcuff the man. (LivePD Video)

As Mitchell yelled that he couldn’t breathe his body went limp under the four deputies, the video showed.

A fifth WCSO deputy, Lorenzo Hernandez, ran into the fray, jumping and landing on Mitchell with a knee before punching him several times in the back. At that point, Mitchell appears to be unconscious, lying face-down in a pool of blood on the pavement.

“He’s not even under arrest at this point. He’s getting jumped by four officers,” Mitchell’s friend, Nicole Chamberlain, told KXAN. Chamberlain said she found out about the arrest days after it happened, when Mitchell didn’t show up for work.

“This looks like gang violence — this doesn’t look like police work,” Chamberlain said as she re-watched the video during an interview with KXAN in August. Chamberlain and two other women spoke before the Williamson County Commissioners Court on July 9, 2019, just weeks after the Live PD broadcast, telling the court that Mitchell was “brutalized” by deputies during the arrest.

WARNING: This video contains profanity and shows punching and a stun gun being used on a man during an arrest

In emails to Chamberlain from jail, Mitchell said his orbital socket was “crushed,” his nose was broken, elbow dislocated, a tendon torn, two teeth broken and “half of [his teeth were] shifted to the side.”

The Live PD recording is the only video the public has seen documenting the Mitchell stop. KXAN requested from Williamson County all recordings related to the Mitchell traffic stop and any recordings made during the internal investigation of the deputies’ actions, but the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office blocked the release of those recordings in March.

In blocking the release of videos in the case file, WCSO claimed it “…lacks the technical ability to redact portions of the video recordings and body camera recordings,” wrote Amy Bass-Domel in a letter to the Texas Office of Attorney General. Because the sheriff’s office doesn’t have video editing technology, state law allows the sheriff to keep the Mitchell recordings secret, Bass-Domel’s letter to the AG’s office stated.

Our request also sought digital copies of all mugshots of Mitchell related to his March 2019 arrest.

KXAN obtained two mugshots from the incident. One, provided by a source, appears to be an original digital mugshot posted on the Williamson County jail bookings webpage. That original mugshot shows Mitchell’s face covered in dried blood and injuries to his right eye. That mugshot was later replaced online with another Mitchell said was taken weeks later that shows his face in better condition.

In answering KXAN’s open records request, the county provided a black-and-white paper copy of Mitchell’s original mugshot, which does not clearly show the blood or detail of Mitchell’s arrest as depicted in the color digital copy, which we requested.

WCSO performed internal investigations of both the Ambler and Mitchell use of force cases. Dick told KXAN that Camden and Johnson were “cleared” in April 2019 in the sheriff’s investigation of the Ambler case. An APD investigation into Johnson and Camden’s use of force was still open, Dick said.

The sheriff’s investigation of the Mitchell excessive force case shows a statement alleging Mitchell tried to bite Camden and grabbed for Camden’s Taser at one point. 

All five deputies were cleared of wrongdoing by four members of Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody’s command staff. The final review happened on June 13, 2019, when Deputy James David wrote, “…the quick escalation in the use of force was justified and within policy to secure the lawful arrest of the suspect, and ensure the safety of everyone involved,” David wrote in the internal investigative report.

Nearly two weeks after closing the internal investigation, former WCSO Commander Stephen Deaton noted in the file that Camden was “counseled” because of his use of “excessive profanity” in the Mitchell case.

A source who viewed the entire Mitchell body camera recordings said another WCSO deputy who arrived on scene made a comment at the end of the video recording that is also the subject of the excessive force investigation. Deaton, in response to the comment, wrote in the Mitchell report that the comment “…did demonstrate the need to remind our troops to turn off their recording devices once the incident is over and there is no longer any investigatory reason to have any on.”

Under investigation

In June, more than a year after Ambler’s death, the footage from that night was made public, when the APD officer’s video was released. Dick said his office didn’t know the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office had an in-custody death from March 28, 2019, until the Ambler video became public.

Because of Ambler’s death, charges related to the pursuit were never filed with Dick’s office. Dick knew of the Ramsey Mitchell case, when deputies filed charges against Mitchell. Dick said he sent the video of Mitchell’s arrest “out for review.”

“I saw it within a few days of it airing on Live PD. They had filed charges against Ramsey Mitchell with our office, our office accepted one of those charges. So, it was a case that came to our attention pretty quickly,” Dick said. “We obviously didn’t know the day that it happened. It was obviously on Live PD and all the details about it, but within a few days we were already watching the video from Live PD and figuring out about it.”

Deputy JJ Johnson, left, and Deputy Zachary Camden are pictured here in a photograph posted to the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. (Williamson County Sheriff’s Office Photo)

“We looked at it and had some concerns, just internally within our office. We’re prosecutors. We’re lawyers, so we don’t actually do the investigations, so we did ask an outside agency for a review of the video and let us know what they thought about the video,” Dick told KXAN. “Fast forward many months, and it comes to our attention that Javier Ambler happened a few months before Ramsey Mitchell and some of the same officers were involved in both cases and I certainly think … it puts Ramsey Mitchell in a different context.”  

Dick said his office was already investigating two excessive force cases involving the sheriff’s office at the time. But, those investigations broadened after his office noticed the same deputies’ names connected to different cases.

“I think what changed was just the nature of the complaints that we received from that point until a few months ago,” Dick said, regarding his office asking for the Mitchell incident to be re-investigated.

After WCSO cleared Johnson and Camden the month following the Ambler death, both were back out on patrol and were never placed on leave, Chief Deputy Ryle told KXAN. Both Johnson and Camden were back to work even as APD continued working the death investigation involving the two deputies.

None of the employees you referenced are currently on administrative leave and have not been placed on administrative leave in the past.”

–Chief Deputy Tim Ryle, July 21, 2020 email to KXAN

“Was it proper for these deputies involved in the Ambler case to be back out on the streets with an investigation pending?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Dick in July.

“It is highly unusual to have an officer under investigation and still have that officer employed in some manner that is active patrol duty or active police detective duty,” Dick said. “Typically, they’re put on some kind of administrative duty or administrative leave during the pendency of their investigations.”

The investigation into Ambler’s death remains pending.

On July 22, 2020, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, who lost her reelection bid in July, announced she would delay turning the Ambler investigation over to a grand jury until her successor is sworn in. Both Moore and Dick are handling two different ends of the Ambler investigation. Moore is handling the investigation into whether WCSO deputies committed crimes during the arrest. Dick is investigating “possible tampering with evidence by personnel from Williamson County agencies who have had contact or communications with the television show, Live PD,” Moore wrote in a statement in June. 

Dick would not comment on any of the five cases to prevent jeopardizing the active investigations, he said. When each investigation is finished, Dick said his office will review them and send all use of force investigations to a Williamson County grand jury.

The grand jury will decide whether to hand up indictments or that no crime was committed in use of force cases in Williamson County.

“We’re not going to ignore these cases. We’re not going to accept them into our office and let them disappear. They are going to be referred out to a law enforcement agency, an independent law enforcement agency, to investigate these cases,” Dick told KXAN.

As of this report, there was no time frame for when each of the five active use of force investigations will be finished and presented to the grand jury.

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