AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nearly one month to the day a Williamson County grand jury indicted Sheriff Robert Chody related to the missing “Live PD” video from Javier Ambler’s death, Ambler’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county.
KXAN reached out to Williamson County for comment and it said it “does not comment on current or pending litigation.”
Ambler’s attorneys accuse in the lawsuit that “Williamson County Sheriff’s Deputies JJ Johnson and Zachary Camden killed Javier Ambler, II as he begged ‘I can’t breathe,'” during a March 28, 2019 arrest. Johnson and Camden chased Ambler for more than 20 minutes before the chase ended inside Austin city limits.
The chase started after Johnson said Ambler failed to dim his headlights, according to the lawsuit.
Johnson and Camden decided to chase Ambler over a “trivial” traffic offense to “produce an ‘entertaining’ program” for “Live PD” cameras, attorneys for Ambler’s estate wrote in the lawsuit filed Oct. 26 in the federal courthouse in Austin.
Chody said in a statement that 60% of pursuits last year were for minor traffic violations, and added that prior to him taking office 70% of pursuits in 2016 and 90% in 2015 were for minor traffic violations.
“As deputies patrol at night, lights left off or left in the bright position are, among other indications, often are indicators of intoxication,” Chody wrote. “In most cases, officers pull the driver over, check in with them, notify the drivers of the issue and then the driver goes on his or her way. If the driver decides to flee in response to this previously minor traffic stop, it would be highly likely that a chase would result. All drivers understand that if they are directed by police to pull over but decide to flee, the police could certainly be expected to pursue.”
Body camera video later released by the Austin Police Department showed Ambler trying to get onto the ground and the two Williamson County deputies on top of him. The video also shows two “Live PD” camera operators recording within feet of the arrest.
“Johnson fired the TASER at Ambler despite the fact that he was compliant, not posing a threat, and not attempting to escape the officers on foot. Camden also drew his TASER, and used its ‘drive stun’ mode to shock Ambler in the back despite the fact that Ambler was compliant, not posing a threat, and not attempting to escape the officers,” the lawsuit stated.
The body camera video showed Ambler tell the deputies he couldn’t breathe multiple times as the deputies continued to yell orders at Ambler to give deputies his hands. The video also showed a deputy with his knee in Ambler’s back as Ambler lay face-down on the side of the road.
“At this point, Ambler’s body is completely limp,” the lawsuit stated. Ambler died at the hospital around an hour after the arrest.
In a press conference Monday, the Ambler family’s attorney’s said the 40-year-old was discriminated against for race and disability, claiming his obesity made it hard for him to get down on the ground quickly enough, when the chase ended.
“He was not aggressive,” said attorney Jeff Edwards. “He was trying to do his best, and he was met with a venomous assault that ended his life.”
The lawsuit also alleged Chody “encouraged” the use of force “when it was unnecessary” and would reward deputies with gift cards for using force against people they arrested. Those deputies would also contend for the “WilCo Bada–” title, according to the lawsuit.
The “WilCo Bada–” award also provided deputies a chance to appear on “Live PD,” the suit claims.
“The Williamson County Sheriff’s department essentially became a ‘Made for TV’ episode, encouraging reckless police chases, encouraging excessive force,” Edwards said.
“He is dead because he had on high beam lights, and they wanted some ratings on the television show,” Attorney Ben Crump added.
In 2017, soon after Chody took office, the lawsuit claims the sheriff changed the WCSO training standards “without permission” of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. TCOLE provides accreditation for local law enforcement training academies across Texas.
The lawsuit claims Chody approved the reduction in the amount of training a deputy would receive before working independently in Williamson County. In Texas, deputies receive “five to seven months” of training before working independently, but Chody changed that to three months, according to the lawsuit.
WCSO policies on restraints, pursuits
KXAN obtained the sheriff’s 560-page “general orders” handbook, which contains the department’s policies. The policy manual details exactly on what grounds a deputy can chase a driver under the chapter titled “Vehicle Pursuits.”
“It is the policy of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office that its deputies may only engage in a pursuit of a violator in a motor vehicle when a law violator has clearly demonstrated the intention of avoiding arrest and there is an immediate need for apprehension of the violator,” the policy stated. The Ambler chase started over what his attorneys call a “trivial” traffic offense.
Chody’s Oct. 26 statement to KXAN appeared to build a case for the justification for the Ambler chase. The district attorney’s office confirmed that internal investigations performed by the sheriff’s office cleared both deputies of policy violations in connection to the Ambler case.
The only time the word “breathing” appears in the WCSO policy manual with respect to restraints is found under the “Prisoner Restraints” general order. “The purpose of this policy is to establish guidelines for the use of handcuffs and other restraining devices,” the order states.
The policy prohibits handcuffing people in a “prone position” and requires deputies to “roll the suspect onto his or her side or place the suspect in a sitting position” as soon as the handcuffs are secured. The policy also warns deputies that obesity and physical disabilities “can increase difficulty breathing when a person is restrained.”
Ambler’s case isn’t the only video recorded traffic stop where a driver told deputies “I can’t breathe.” Just two months after Ambler’s death, the same deputies involved in the Ambler stop had Ramsey Mitchell on the ground, using tasers on him and hitting him in the face with Live PD cameras broadcasting the entire incident.
Deputy Mark Luera placed Mitchell into a chokehold during the struggle to handcuff him.
“I can’t breathe,” Mitchell is hears screaming on the video as deputies continued yelling orders at him. The Live PD recording shows Luera’s arm around Mitchell’s neck. Mitchell tells deputies again that he can’t breathe before falling limp face-first on the ground.
Amblers attorneys told reporters in an Oct. 26 press conference that one only needs to view the video to see that Ambler was “killed” by Williamson County deputies. The lawyers pointed to the difference between the Mitchell stop and Ambler was that Ambler was in clear “distress” from the start.
“Either they were counseled that the words ‘I can’t breathe’ don’t actually mean that I can’t breathe because in a—wait for this—someone who’s saying ‘I can’t breathe’ is actually talking and that’s been a dangerous common occurrence throughout other cases,” Ambler attorney Jeff Edwards said.
“Sometimes it’s better to ask a 12 year old, and ask a 2 year old the question: what should you do if someone says they can’t breathe and are obviously struggling? Should you A: continue to exercise force and make it worse for them or B: help them,” Edwards said.
By exonerating both deputies in the Ambler and Mitchell case, Ambler’s legal team said the county essentially ratified the conduct shown in the videos.
“That behavior not only continues with that individual, but it also continues within that department, which creates the culture of impunity. So, when you look at event after event after event, that’s what ratification is and that’s what causes the bad behavior and that’s why the training is deficient,” Ambler attorney Tony Romanucci said.
The lawsuit names Williamson County as the lone defendant. Sheriff Chody and deputies Johnson and Camden are named throughout the lawsuit.
Chody alleges in a statement the “timing of this effort seems to be politically motivated prior to Election Day.” Chody is up for re-election.
Austin attorneys Ken Ervin and Doug O’Connell responded to a KXAN message sent to Johnson and Camden Monday morning. O’Connell wrote that his firm represents the deputies didn’t
“anticipate” making statements for this report.