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“Javier Ambler Law” would ban ‘Live PD’ type reality show deals

Tony Plohetski
 
| Austin American-Statesman

Texas lawmakers will consider banning law enforcement agencies from signing up to star on television reality shows — arrangements critics say can cause officers to forsake sound policing and endanger the public for ratings and celebrity.

The proposal, which will be taken up by the Legislature when lawmakers convene in January, is the latest development in the aftermath of the American-Statesman’s reporting on the death of Javier Ambler II and its connection to the Williamson County sheriff’s office appearances on the now-defunct TV show, “Live PD.”

The 40-year-old Black man died in March 2019 after Williamson County deputies chased him for 22 minutes — a pursuit launched because he failed to dim his headlights — and used their Tasers on him four times as he gasped that he had congestive heart failure and could not breathe. Deputies J.J. Johnson and Zach Camden had crews from the A&E show with them at the time, but the footage never aired.

A Williamson County grand jury indicted Sheriff Robert Chody in September on an evidence tampering charge in the destruction of the “Live PD” video of Ambler’s arrest, and voters ousted him from office in November. 

A grand jury in Travis County, where the pursuit ended, also is considering evidence tampering charges against Chody and others, including the company that produced the show, and will evaluate early next year whether to indict Johnson and Camden for excessive force.

What is known about Ambler’s final moments came from body camera video from an Austin police officer who arrived at the scene.

“When you watch that footage, you can see that those deputies were being more aggressive than they otherwise would have, and that is because they were more interested in boosting their ratings than protecting a citizen,” said Rep. James Talarico, a Round Rock Democrat who proposed the law. “They were more interested in becoming a reality TV show star than serving our neighbors.”

HB 54 is also called the Javier Ambler Law and would ban crews from filming “peace officers while acting in the line of duty for the purpose of creating a reality TV show.” Other productions, including documentaries or news programs aimed at educating rather than providing entertainment, would not be affected.

Talarico said he believes the bill will draw bipartisan support and that both Republicans and Democrats have a desire for Texans to have confidence in law enforcement.

John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and the senior member of the Texas Senate, said he will work with Talarico to help get the bill passed. 

“There are so many facets of this that beg our response,” Whitmire said. “To see the abuse documented is just horrible.”

Williamson County participated in the show, as did the El Paso Police Department, during “Live PD’s” four-year run. Other featured departments were outside Texas. “Live PD” followed officers as they patrolled or performed other missions, broadcasting their encounters with the public as they happened to a national audience. 

“Live PD” had been a source of controversy for months leading up to revelations about Ambler’s death, because of other examples of what experts have said were excessive force and dangerous tactics in Williamson County. Defense attorneys, civil libertarians and others believe that such shows can lead to unfair consequences for people who have not been convicted of a crime, exploit people of color, and do little to improve or further the dialog on policing in America.

Proponents, including Chody, have argued that such shows help in recruiting and provide the audience with an intimate view of the dangers and dramas of police work. 

Producers canceled “Live PD” two days after details in Ambler’s death sparked national headlines, which also came amid protests across the country in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the cancelation of the long-running show “COPS.” At the time, “Live PD” was one of the highest-rated shows on cable. 

Host Dan Abrams said in August that he was in “active and ongoing discussions” about how to revive the series.

In addition to Ambler’s death, the Statesman also reported on another Williamson County arrest that was broadcast on “Live PD.” A handful of deputies unleashed a barrage of punches, knee jabs and Taser shocks, as Mitchell Ramsey tried to run away from a traffic stop in June 2019. The case remains under investigation by Williamson County prosecutors and the Texas Rangers for possible charges against the deputies.

The newspaper also shined light on a Williamson County SWAT raid that the show’s TV cameras filmed to dramatic effect. A SWAT team broke down Asher Watsky’s father’s front door in May 2019 to arrest the son on a warrant stemming from a fight with his roommate. Watsky had sat peacefully in Williamson County court hours earlier, where deputies could have taken him into custody without fanfare.

“This isn’t ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,’’ said Watksy’s attorney Brad Vinson, who believes his client’s arrest was staged for TV. “These changes in legislation are welcome and needed.”

Former detectives told the Statesman that they were sometimes instructed to rush investigations and to more quickly seek warrants so that “Live PD” crews could make compelling arrests for the show.

The Statesman also found that car chases, often for minor offenses, and force encounters increased while the Williamson County contracted with “Live PD.” An analysis showed that the agency nearly doubled its use of force when cameras started rolling and that the number of car chases went up 54% when “Live PD” featured Williamson County.

At the time of his defeat in November, Chody remained in a lawsuit with Williamson County commissioners over his participation in the show. Commissioners had voted to end a contract with the production in August 2019 after residents expressed concern. But Chody negotiated his own agreement with producers, which commissioners said was illegal.

Commissioners dropped the suit after Chody’s election loss.

Ambler’s sister, Kim, said the family approached Talarico soon after they learned details of her brother’s death from reporters.

Image: Unknown  

The family of Javier Ambler II, including his mother Maritza Ambler and father Javier Ambler, asked state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, to file a measure to ban TV reality shows from partnering with Texas police agencies.

She said she and her parents wanted to do something to honor Ambler and have a lasting impact on Texas law enforcement.

“It means a lot to me and my family,” she said. “I feel like if ‘Live PD’ was not there that day, my brother would be here today. I honestly believe that in my heart. So in order to not have anything like this, we need a law.

“Police work is not entertainment.” 

Watchdog coverage

Investigative reporter Tony Plohetski has covered criminal justice and law enforcement in Austin since 2002. This is the latest story in the American-Statesman’s series of investigations of the Williamson County sheriff’s office. In recent months, the newspaper exposed circumstances in the death of Javier Ambler II and other questionable use-of-force cases and revealed how the reality show “Live PD” influenced the county’s law enforcement. The reporting prompted a grand jury investigation that culminated in the September indictment of Sheriff Robert Chody and the county’s general counsel. 

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