Williamson County Sheriff’s Office facing new excessive force lawsuit over arrest recorded for ‘Live PD’

Investigations

This still frame from a June 14, 2019 Live PD broadcast shows Ramsey Mitchell lying in a pool of blood after multiple Williamson County Sheriff’s deputies forcefully arrested Mitchell. Deputies reported stopping Mitchell for not having a front license plate.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Within weeks of Javier Ambler’s in-custody death in March 2019, Williamson County Sheriff’s deputies Zachary Camden and JJ Johnson were back out on patrol. Both deputies were under investigation by the Austin Police Department for their roles in the arrest that ended in Ambler’s death.

Although the incident was never broadcast on the “Live PD” reality show, investigators later found out two camera crews were on scene that night and were riding along with deputies.

Camden and Johnson were both cleared by WCSO internal investigators the next month and both were put back to work, Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick told KXAN.

However, just three months after Ambler’s death, Camden and Johnson were seen on “Live PD” cameras in the use-of-force arrest of Ramsey Mitchell, who, according to the deputies, did not have a front license plate.

This Live PD broadcast shows Williamson County Deputy Mark Luera applying a chokehold on Ramsey Mitchell in this June 2019 traffic stop (A&E)

Now, a lawsuit has been filed in that case.

Just before stopping Mitchell, both Johnson and Camden were fishing for content for the show, the lawsuit claims. Mitchell’s attorney Blerim Elmazi wrote:

“Within less than 10 minutes, Johnson and Camden pulled over approximately eight vehicles on the road in their search for an entertaining encounter for ‘Live PD.’ Johnson and Camden spoke with each vehicle occupant for approximately 30 seconds or less before deciding to release the vehicle and conduct another traffic stop on other vehicles for either minor traffic violations or for no violation at all.”

Attorney Blerim Elmazi

Eventually, the deputies pulled Mitchell and told him to turn his car off and stay seated, the lawsuit stated. They then reportedly called for camera crews to come to the scene.

The “Live PD” broadcast on June 14, 2019 shows deputies ask Mitchell to get out of his car. When he did, Mitchell turned to run.

Over the next 2 minutes and 15 seconds, Camden, Johnson and another deputy, Mark Luera, kneed and punched Mitchell multiple times — in addition to using stun guns — while trying to get him into handcuffs. Video shows Luera put Mitchell into a chokehold while 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 responded.

Williamson County took the original mugshot of Ramsey Mitchell within hours of his arrest on June 14, 2019. Mitchell said the county changed his original mugshot for the one on the right weeks later (WCSO)

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. Hernandez could be seen jumping and landing on Mitchell with a knee before punching him several times in the back. At this point, Mitchell appears to be unconscious, lying face-down in a pool of blood.

Mitchell later awoke at the scene, and Deputy Camden kicked Ramsey “without provocation,” in addition to asking if he was from “around here,” Elmazi wrote in the filing. When Mitchell told Camden he was not from Williamson County, Camden reportedly said, “Well this is how we do it in Williamson County.”

Mitchell suffered severe injuries in the arrest: a crushed orbital socket, broken nose, dislocated elbow, a torn tendon, and two broken teeth. In an email sent from the Williamson County Jail, Mitchell reported “half of his teeth were shifted to the side.”

The lawsuit shows Mitchell also suffered a concussion, memory loss, bleeding due to a busted ear drum, reconstructive surgery for the orbital socket injury, partial blindness in his left eye, a fractured jaw, pinched jaw nerves, spinal damage, and injuries that required surgery at the time. Mitchell, however, was denied medical treatment.

Mitchell reportedly still suffers permanent, life-altering injuries from the arrest, his attorneys wrote.

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

Mitchell’s attorneys claimed deputies “laughed and applauded each other for the brutal assault they initiated against Mitchell while filming for ‘Live PD,'” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit lists former Sheriff Robert Chody, Zachary Camden, James “JJ” Johnson, Mark Luera, Charles Duval and Lorenzo Hernandez as defendants.

Chody could not be reached for this report. A message left for his criminal attorney, Gerry Morris, has not yet been returned.

A message sent to Johnson and Camden’s legal team has not yet been returned. There are no attorneys listed for Luera, Duval or Hernandez, and the lawsuit does not contain any contact information for any of the three.

KXAN reached out Tuesday to Williamson County for comment about this lawsuit and will update the story once it receives a response

‘Policing is not meant for entertainment’

The Mitchell lawsuit contains a thread running through many previous federal civil rights lawsuits against Chody and his deputies: citizens claimed they were abused for the sake of television ratings.

Mitchell’s lawsuit details a story about a sheriff hellbent on keeping his department in a starring role in a reality television show broadcast weekly across the nation, explaining:

“Chody, not wanting to risk the end of the County’s relationship with ‘Live PD,’ decided to build and develop a group of Live PD ‘stars’ that could regularly be featured on the show, that had entertaining personalities for cable television, and that were capable of engaging in high-risk encounters that would provide for entertaining content with ‘Live PD.'”

Attorney Blerim Elmazi

Chody reportedly went as far as involving his own 911 dispatchers in diverting emergency calls from deputies starring on “Live PD” — even though they were on duty and working as law enforcement, according to the lawsuit. These deputies, Commander Deaton claimed, were marked by a special call sign for emergency dispatchers.

Johnson Camden mugshots ambler
Williamson County deputies Zachary Camden (L) and JJ Johnson (R) were indicted on manslaughter charges for their actions during the arrest of Javier Ambler (WCSO)

Elmazi writes that once, when a dispatcher accidentally sent a “Live PD” deputy to investigate a burglar alarm, Chody personally called the employee’s supervisor to complain.

“The dispatcher explained that ‘Live PD’ ‘added unnecessary stress to an already stressful environment… Most of us are there because we want to save lives. It became more or less that we were having to cater to and do our jobs around the show,’” Elmazi quoted an unidentified Williamson County dispatcher as saying.

The lawsuit also noted Chody received a benefit from the reality series when his Twitter account exploded to tens of thousands of followers during the department’s participation in the show.

“Chody’s promotion of ‘Live PD’ through social media operated under the guise of helping the County recruit more deputies, but, in reality, Chody sought to enhance his own celebrity and the celebrity of his department during the 29 weeks in which ‘Live PD’ filmed in Williamson County,” the lawsuit claims.

Deputies were also reportedly encouraged by Chody to engage in dangerous, high-risk police tactics for the benefit of the show, according to the lawsuit. Plaintiffs in similar lawsuits have made the same claim against Chody and his department.

Former Williamson Co. Sheriff Robert Chody and Attorney General Counsel Jason Nassour were indicted in 2 counties, each on one count of evidence tampering in the death of Javier Ambler (KXAN/WCSO)

The lawsuits details claims from other excessive force criminal investigations into WCSO that Chody and the department created an unofficial “WilCo Badass” award.

Winners of the award reportedly received gift cards and TV appearances for performing policing acts that would likely go “viral.”

Those acts usually included “excessive force on camera,” the Mitchell lawsuit asserted.

The Mitchell lawsuit is seeking damages for excessive force, civil rights violations, failure to train, supervise and/or discipline — in addition to accountability for Chody and WCSO’s reported “official policy or custom” that was a “moving force” behind the abuses against citizens.

“Williamson County failed to properly implement training and policies governing the appropriate use of lethal and non-lethal force on members of the public,” the Mitchell lawsuit stated.

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