The family of Javier Ambler II, a Black man who died last year in the custody of Williamson County sheriff’s deputies, filed a federal lawsuit against the county Sunday as nationally known civil rights attorney Ben Crump joined the case.
The 28-page suit included many findings revealed in an ongoing investigation by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, which reported in June that Ambler died after deputies chased him in March 28, 2019, after he failed to dim his headlights. The officers used Tasers on Ambler four times, the suit says, and crews from the since-canceled reality show “Live PD” destroyed video of the encounter.
The suit also makes several new claims, including that the department relied upon training techniques in which deputies were taught that they could keep using force on detainees who said, “I can’t breathe” — just as Ambler did — because they were still able to speak.
The lawsuit said the department and Sheriff Robert Chody, who was indicted in September on an evidence tampering charge related to the video destruction, promoted a culture of violence often for the sake of television.
Seeking unspecified damages for Ambler’s parents and two young sons, the suit also said two deputies used excessive force on Ambler and violated his rights as a person with a disability. Ambler was obese and told deputies multiple times that he had congestive heart failure.
“Sheriff Chody and his deputies made it a greater priority to create reality television than to defend and protect the citizens of Williamson County,” Crump said in a statement.
Crump also represents the family of George Floyd, whose death while in Minneapolis police custody in May touched off national protests. Like Ambler, Floyd told police that he could not breathe in what became a rallying cry for law enforcement reform.
Crump, who also represented the families of Botham Jean and Michael Brown, will work with Austin attorney Jeff Edwards as part of a growing legal team that also includes attorneys from two Chicago firms specializing in excessive force cases. Jean was fatally shot in his home by ex-Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in September 2018. Brown was fatally shot by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in August 2014.
Williamson County officials did not immediately return requests for comment Sunday afternoon. Chody has said that he brought “Live PD” to the department to help with hiring and to showcase the work of deputies. His chief deputy has praised deputies J.J. Johnson and Zach Camden for how they handled Ambler.
According to the suit, the department engaged in reckless police chases for minor offenses, encouraged deputies to use force, encouraged escalation of encounters instead of de-escalation and hired deputies with checkered backgrounds.
It says that the agency also did not properly train deputies concerning handcuffing, prone restraint and positional asphyxia, which happens when a detainee’s body position prevents him from breathing.
“Sheriff Chody was deliberately indifferent to the known and obvious consequences of these policies, practices and customs which he was aware of, authorized and encouraged rather than acting to correct them,” the suit says.
In the months since the Statesman’s first report, the newspaper analyzed traffic stops and found that car chases increased 54% during the year that the department joined “Live PD.”
The Statesman has revealed details of several other violent encounters between civilians and deputies, five of which remain under investigation by the Texas Rangers and Williamson County prosecutors.
This month, former deputy Christopher Pisa was indicted for using force on a 29-year-old Black woman after stopping her for not having a front license plate.
Most recently, the Statesman showed that the number of force encounters nearly doubled from 2017 to 2019 and that much of the increase occurred in the weeks that “Live PD” was filming.
“The sheriff and his department have a long history of excessive force against people of color, and this behavior dramatically increased when the TV cameras were on,” Crump said. “They must be held accountable.”