Texas House bill could ban reality TV access to law enforcement

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A bill that would outlaw reality television crews from contracting with Texas law enforcement didn’t get a vote Thursday evening. The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee decided to leave the bill pending after hearing less than 15 minutes of discussion on it.

The bill, filed by Williamson County Democrat Rep. James Talarico, takes aim at preventing the results of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office’s participation on the Live PD reality show.

The WCSO, then led by former Sheriff Robert Chody, was one of the featured departments on the now-defunct Live PD reality show. During the department’s time on the show, one man died and another was seriously injured after encounters with deputies. In both instances, Live PD cameras were on scene.

Deputies said Javier Ambler failed to dim his headlights and then would not stop when deputies tried to pull him over in March 2019. Ambler eventually crashed in Austin city limits and Austin Police body camera video shows him telling deputies he couldn’t breathe as he lay on the ground as two Williamson County deputies worked to handcuff him.

Ambler died in custody about an hour after his encounter with deputies.

“If you watch the video, of Javier Ambler’s murder, you see officers much more aggressively than they otherwise would have if there wasn’t a reality TV crew following them around. We have to say loudly and unequivocally that policing is not entertainment,” Talarico told KXAN.

Ambler’s death is still under investigation by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. Ambler’s manner of death was does not show murder. The state’s custodial death report shows Ambler’s death ruled a homicide with a note “includes Justifiable Homicide.”

Kimberly Ambler Moore told the committee Thursday night that she supports Talarico’s bill, pointing out that March 29 will mark the two-year anniversary of her brother’s death.

“Our family didn’t know anything about exactly what happened, the details behind it. We didn’t know that Live PD was there. We didn’t have any background information for 15 months after he passed away is when we found out. And we wholeheartedly feel that if Live PD wasn’t present and wasn’t involved in the situation, my brother would still be here today,” Moore testified.

Dylan Price, an attorney with the Houston law firm Walker and Taylor, spoke out against the bill.

“I believe that the addition of camera crews does make police more accountable and less likely to break laws or use excessive force. TV shows that document police encounters serve as an undervalued resource to educate the public. These shows paint the picture of the dos and don’ts of police encounters and it shows the perspectives of police officers during such encounters,” Price told the committee.

He added a bill banning reality television crews would “limit the rights of those producing such content from exercising their free speech.”

Just two months after Ambler’s death, the same deputies were involved in a nationally-broadcasted traffic stop of Ramsey Mitchell. The broadcast shows Mitchell stepping out of his car and then turn to run. The video shows deputies grab Mitchell, take him to the ground where he was hit with a stun gun, and deputies punched him multiple times and kneed him in the face and head.

Mitchell was seriously injured in the encounter, and an internal review of the use of force showed no policy or law violations, according to the sheriff’s office.

Former Sheriff Robert Chody and Jason Nassour, who County Attorney Dee Hobbs’ has continued to employ as the county attorney’s office’s general counsel, were both indicted in September 2020. Each face one count of evidence tampering in connection to the Ambler death.

The indictments allege Chody and Nassour acted to “destroy or conceal” the Live PD recordings in the Ambler arrest. APD body camera video shows at least two Live PD camera operators recording the arrest.

In this Sept. 28, 2020, booking photo provided by the Williamson County, Texas, Sheriff’s office shows Sheriff Robert Chody, who was booked into his jail Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, on a $10,000 bond. A grand jury indicted the Texas sheriff Monday on charges accusing him of destroying or concealing video in an investigation into the death of Javier Ambler, a Black man who died in police custody last year. Chody is facing the third-degree felony charge that is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. (Williamson County Sheriff via AP)

The video would have been used as evidence in the investigation and prosecution related to Ambler’s death, Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick told KXAN.

In October 2020, Ambler’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county and deputies involved in the arrest. Ambler’s attorneys accused the sheriff’s office of using “trivial” traffic offenses to provide “entertaining” content for Live PD.

Ambler’s death caused Talarico to file the bill.

“When we continuously ask for justice for Javier Ambler, the justice that we’re asking for is also including that this doesn’t happen so another family has to struggle everyday on living here without someone that meant so much to them over something so small of not dimming their headlights and their life was taken,” Moore told the committee.

“My brother’s life shouldn’t have been taken for good TV.”

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