Williamson County sheriff rehires deputy indicted in 2019 excessive force case

Investigations

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) – Just three months after the Williamson County grand jury handed up two high-level misdemeanor indictments against Christopher Pisa, he’s gotten access to the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office once again.

Sheriff Mike Gleason, who was sworn into office on Jan. 1, rehired Pisa. Gleason said Pisa is not working patrol and isn’t a sworn member of the office. Pisa is currently on administrative duty and working at the sheriff’s training center and isn’t wearing a gun or badge, Gleason told KXAN.

Christopher Pisa worked as a Williamson County Sheriff’s deputy until April 2019 when he resigned “in good standing” following a traffic stop where he’s accused of assaulting a woman. (Williamson County Jail)

The county grand jury indicted Pisa in October on two counts: official oppression and assault causing bodily injury. Pisa pleaded not guilty to the charges and is awaiting trial.

The indictments don’t detail much about what happened between Pisa and Imani Nembhard, the woman he stopped in April 2019. The indictment accuses Pisa of “intentionally” subjecting Nembhard “to mistreatment” by “pushing or throwing the complainant with his hands or by placing his knee on the complainant’s arm.”

The assault indictment accused Pisa of pulling Nembhard’s hair during what the deputy’s attorney characterized as a “physical confrontation” between the two after Pisa stopped Nembhard for not having a front license plate and asked her to get out of her car, Pisa’s attorney Robert McCabe wrote in an Oct. 25, 2020 press release.

Pisa resigned “in good standing” within days of the arrest, according to McCabe. But two different supervisors in April 2019 cleared Pisa of wrongdoing after watching his body and dash camera videos and reviewing the use-of-force report, McCabe said.

“This is the story of a young man that had an allegation made against him and was just run off for the lack of a better term. He was given no charges, no opportunity to explain himself and found himself being indicted in almost in a vindictive manner, if you will,” Sheriff Gleason told KXAN.

Pisa was new to the sheriff’s office and turned out to patrol alone less than four months after he graduated from the training academy when he pulled Nembhard over on State Highway 195, McCabe said. Pisa shouldn’t have been on patrol by himself, claiming officers typically receive five to seven months of patrol training with “more experienced officers,” according to McCabe.

Gleason acknowledged the points McCabe raised regarding Pisa’s training led to his decision to give Pisa his job back until “he has his day in court.”

“Bringing this deputy back, how do you justify that?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Gleason.

“I brought him back so he would have due process, which is something that has been lacking in the last four years of the previous administration,” Gleason responded.

“We just want to let him have his day in court. He’s not on the street, he’s not been sworn in as a police officer, he does not carry a gun; he’s just here maintaining his position in an administrative standpoint,” Gleason said.

Gleason said Pisa’s case shouldn’t be compared to other high profile excessive force cases that became public under former Sheriff Robert Chody’s tenure.

The new sheriff criticized Chody’s administration’s handling of deputies involved in use of force cases in the past. Deputies involved in the March 2019 in-custody death of Javier Ambler were never placed on leave following Ambler’s death, Chody’s Chief Deputy Tim Ryle confirmed last summer.

Deputies James “JJ” Johnson and Zachary Camden were involved in a chase with Ambler, who deputies accused of not dimming his bright headlights. Both deputies are shown on Austin Police Department body camera video trying to handcuff Ambler, who told deputies he couldn’t breathe during the arrest — all while Live PD cameras were recording.

Ambler died about an hour later.

Those same two deputies were involved in another excessive force case involving Ramsey Mitchell just three months later, which was captured on the defunct ‘Live PD’ reality show and broadcast across the nation.

Neither deputy was ever placed on leave while Chody’s internal affairs investigators worked to figure out whether either deputy committed any violations of department policy or the law. Chody’s sheriff’s office cleared all deputies involved in the Ambler and Mitchell arrests, Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick told KXAN last year.

In fact, the Mitchell stop happened while the Austin Police Department was conducting a criminal investigation into the Ambler death. APD took over the in-custody death investigation since the Williamson County deputy’s pursuit ended inside Austin city limits.  

Gleason said he hasn’t made his mind up as to Pisa’s guilt or innocence but wanted to send the message to his current staff and any future recruits that if they’re accused of wrongdoing, they will have a chance to be proven guilty before they lose their jobs.

“I want to give them a fair shake, not a free pass,” Gleason said.

“The evidence is going to be determined by the court system — that’s not me. The evidence is going to be determined by a jury — that’s not me. The fact that we have to get them there legally and ethically and honorably is what I’m doing. I’m just giving him his due process. If it works out for him, great. If it does not, the end result will be what it will be and he will be separated,” Gleason said.

Pisa’s rehiring shouldn’t be viewed as a broken campaign promise Gleason made to “change the culture” of Chody’s administration, the sheriff said.

“I don’t think his incident should be lumped in with the other ones that we’ve been following for the last year and a half, two years. Those are completely different people, processes, reputations, where they came from, how they were hired. This was someone who actually went through the process like they should have, and the process failed them,” Gleason said, referring to what he said was Pisa’s lack of training.

“I think a lot of those (other excessive force cases) were for entertainment value, and this one was just something due to a lack of training,” Gleason said.

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