Lawsuit: Former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody ‘incentivized’ abuses with steakhouse gift cards

Investigations

Former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody and current Deputy Christopher Pisa are both named as defendants in a federal civil suit filed over an April 2019 excessive force traffic stop. (Williamson County Jail)

Robert Chody (WCSO)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It took less than four years for former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody to create a culture — an award of sorts — inside the sheriff’s office known as “WilCo Bada–,” according to a new lawsuit filed in federal court in Austin.

Chody’s sheriff’s office was “run like a state sanctioned gang, terrorizing citizens,” the lawsuit filed by Imani Nembhard, the victim in an April 2019 excessive force investigation involving a traffic stop by WCSO deputy Christopher Pisa, claimed. Nembhard’s legal team argued she was the victim of Chody’s failure to adequately train deputies and the department’s “culture of constitutional violations.”

The suit lists Williamson County, Chody and current WCSO deputy Pisa as defendants. Pisa was the deputy who pulled Nembhard over in the 2019 traffic stop.

Nembhard had her two daughters in the backseat of her car when Pisa stopped her.

Nembhard was stopped earlier in the day because her car, which belonged to her brother, did not have a front license plate, according to the lawsuit. She received a warning and described the first officer as “polite.”

At one point during the stop, Pisa ordered her out of the car and to put her hands behind her back. The deputy then slammed Nembhard face-first onto the ground, according to the lawsuit, and Pisa got on top of the woman and put his knee into her back.

Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody and Williamson County Attorney General Counsel Jason Nassour were indicted in both Williamson and Travis Counties in 2020 and March 2021, each on one count of evidence tampering from the March 2019 in-custody death of Javier Ambler.

Pisa pulled Nembhard’s braided hair “and ripped multiple braids out of her scalp,” the lawsuit contends. The woman was wearing a dress and was lying on the ground with her dress pulled up after Pisa forced her to the ground.

Nembhard said she was cut in her genital area after Pisa “scraped Ms. Nembhard’s naked body against the pavement,” the lawsuit states. The county jail had Pisa take Nembhard to the hospital where x-rays showed Pisa sprained the woman’s shoulder “when he slammed her to the ground,” according to the suit.

On Oct. 15, 2020 — 18 months after the traffic stop — the Williamson County grand jury indicted Pisa on one count of official oppression and one count of assault causes bodily injury. Pisa’s defense attorney Robert McCabe wrote in a press release at the time that the assault was captured on body and dash camera.

Nembhard’s legal team was denied access to the video by both WCSO and the Texas Department of Public Safety; both agencies citing pending prosecution as the reason to withhold the video recordings under the Texas Public Information Act.

But, two WCSO supervisors immediately reviewed Pisa’s video recordings and use-of-force report from the stop and “approved” of Pisa’s actions and “determined that Pisa’s conduct fell within department policy,” McCabe said in October 2020. Pisa resigned from the sheriff’s office two days after the Nembhard arrest.

Sheriff Mike Gleason, who defeated Chody in 2020, rehired Pisa soon after taking office in January. Gleason declined comment for this report.

“Pisa did not intentionally subject Ms. Nembhard to mistreatment nor to an arrest that he knew to be unlawful. Pisa was negligently trained by the Williamson County Sheriff’s office in all things it takes to be a police officer including knowledge of the laws of Texas, how to conduct a traffic stop and how to de-escalate a situation and was prematurely released into the community without proper guidance or supervision on how to do his job. Pisa is responsible for exposing these serious issues in training and supervision by the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. The evidence will show that Pisa suffered from a critically deficient lack of training and was scarcely supervised as a rookie deputy. It is our hope that this incident, at the conclusion of the investigation into other, still pending, use of force cases at the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, will ultimately be viewed as a training and supervision failure, rather than as an intentional abuse of power by Mr. Pisa”

Robert McCabe, Pisa’s Defense Attorney

Pisa had not been served with the lawsuit and his attorney had not yet read the filing to provide comment at the time of publication. Williamson County was served with a copy of the lawsuit on April 21.

Pisa charged Nembhard with resisting arrest and assault on a public servant, and she spent three days in the Williamson County Jail. The Williamson County district attorney later dismissed both charges against her and instead decided to prosecute Pisa for his actions in the video recordings.

“Pisa was shocked when he was asked to resign as he believed he was going to be rewarded with a steakhouse gift card by the department for his use of force against Ms. Nembhard, as was the custom and practice at the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department under the direction of Defendant Chody,” Nembhard’s attorneys wrote in the federal lawsuit.

Excessive force ‘incentivized’

As in the Javier Ambler lawsuit, Nembhard’s legal team painted the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office under Chody’s reign as an out-of-control department, bent on abusing citizens for the sake of television ratings.

Chody and his department were fixtures on A&E’s ‘Live PD’, a nationally-broadcast reality television program that hired camera crews to ride along with WCSO deputies as they performed traffic stops and answered service calls.

Ambler’s March 2019 traffic stop was never broadcast, but Austin Police Department body camera video shows two Live PD camera operators within feet of Ambler as WCSO deputies JJ Johnson and Zachary Camden fought to get Ambler into handcuffs.

AMBLER-LIVE-PD-WIDE
This still image taken from an Austin Police Department body camera video shows two Live PD cameras pointed at Javier Ambler as two Williamson County deputies worked to handcuff him in March 2019. (Austin Police Department body camera recording)

The arrest happened after deputies tried to stop Ambler for failing to dim his headlights. Ambler would not stop for the deputies, and a 22-minute chase ended inside Austin city limits after Ambler crashed his SUV.

The APD recording shows Ambler tell deputies he couldn’t breathe as they tried to get his hands behind his back. The struggle included deputies hitting Ambler with a taser. Ambler died a little more than an hour after his arrest.

In Ambler’s wrongful death lawsuit, his attorney wrote: “Even after Ambler’s death, Sheriff Chody continued to create ‘entertainment’ with Live PD” and “actively encouraged” deputies to use force against citizens.

During the Texas Rangers’ investigation into the Nembhard stop, Pisa told investigators that Chody’s department had a “use of force incentive program” where deputies were rewarded with steakhouse gift cards, according to Nembhard’s lawsuit.

Both Johnson and Camden, the deputies in the Ambler case, were rewarded with gift cards, the Nembhard lawsuit contends. The Pisa gift card incentive program allegation was substantiated by other members of the department, the suit claims.

Johnson Camden mugshots ambler
The Travis County grand jury indicted former Williamson County deputies Zachary Camden and JJ Johnson on a manslaughter charge for their actions during the March 2019 arrest of Javier Ambler. Ambler died about an hour after the arrest. Zachary Camden (left) and JJ Johnson (right) (WCSO)

“They had the intention that we were all ‘WilCo bada–’ and, if you went out there and did your job and you had to use force on somebody and he agreed with it, then you would get a gift card,” the lawsuit quotes Pisa as stating during the Texas Rangers investigation.

Not only were gift cards rewarded, but the lawsuit claimed using excessive force and having WCSO recognize a deputy for that also meant “getting on TV.”

“Defendant Chody encouraged his officers to engage in dangerous, high-risk police tactics because it made for more entertaining television in service to Live PD,” the Nembhard lawsuit stated.

A message sent to Chody via email had not yet been answered at publication.

Johnson and Camden’s legal team declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Nembhard’s stop was not recorded by Live PD cameras, but Live PD was in town recording with WCSO units the day before, Nembhard’s attorney James Roberts wrote in the filing.

Like McCabe, Nembhard’s lawsuit accuses Chody and the department of inadequately training rookie deputies like Pisa, which led to incidents like Nembhard’s. Pisa was patrolling Williamson County alone within four months of graduating WCSO’s academy.

“Once Defendant Pisa began patrolling in September 2018, supervisors also decreased his field training from the standard five to seven months to only 12 weeks,” the lawsuit alleged.

“The training procedures used for Defendant Pisa were inadequate as he did not receive the same amount of training in de-escalation, use of force, and conducting traffic stops that is standard in the industry according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and other departments,” Nembhard’s lawsuit stated.

The Nembhard lawsuit is filed in the Western District federal court in Austin. A hearing has not yet been set.

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