'Save Me': Texas Man's In-Custody Death Raises Key Questions
A black man died in custody last year after sheriff’s deputies in Texas repeatedly used stun guns on him, despite his pleas that he was sick and couldn’t breathe, according to recently released police video and documents.
Williamson County deputies attempted to pull 40-year-old Javier Ambler over on March 28, 2019, near downtown Austin because he failed to dim his headlights to oncoming traffic, according to an exclusive report by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV. The deputies were being filmed for A&E Network’s real-time police show “Live PD,” a feature of the arrest that prosecutors said is particularly troubling.
The report on Ambler’s death was published Monday as thousands paid their respects to George Floyd at a church in Houston. Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis has sparked weeks of protests worldwide against police brutality and the treatment of African Americans. He was being buried in suburban Houston Tuesday.
Police body camera video of Ambler’s death, released to the Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act, shows the gasping 400-pound (180-kilogram) man telling the deputies that he wants to comply with their demands but that he can’t because he has congestive heart failure.
“I am not resisting,” Ambler cries. “Sir, I can’t breathe. ... Please. ... Please.”
Deputies tell him to put his arms behind his back.
“Save me,” he pleads.
“Do what we’re asking you to do!” a deputy shouts.
“I can’t,” Ambler says. Those were his last words.
Ambler had been driving home after playing poker with friends when Williamson County Deputy J.J. Johnson spotted him with his headlights on high. Johnson flipped on his flashing lights and gave chase. Ambler crashed near downtown Austin.
Johnson drew his gun and demanded that Ambler exit his car. Ambler complied and showed his hands. Johnson, who is black, holstered his gun, pulled out his Taser and told Ambler to get down several times.
According to an internal investigative report, Ambler turned toward his vehicle and Johnson deployed the Taser causing Ambler to drop to one knee, roll onto his back and stomach. It appeared that he was trying to stand.
A white Williamson County sheriff’s deputy arrived with a “Live PD” crew and shoved his Taser into Ambler’s back. A struggle ensued, and one of the deputies — it is unclear which — used a Taser on Ambler a third time, the report says.
An Austin police officer arrived on the scene as the deputies struggled to handcuff Ambler and it was his camera that recorded Ambler’s final pleas for help.
One of the deputies fired his Taser for a fourth time. The video shows Amblers hands were limp by the time deputies placed them in cuffs.
Officers realized Ambler was unconscious and performed CPR until medics arrived.
He was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Investigators with the Williamson County sheriff’s department of internal affairs determined that the deputies didn’t violate pursuit or use-of-force policies. Their report doesn’t indicate whether the deputies were disciplined or forced to take leave.
Ambler’s death was ruled a homicide, according to the report made to the state attorney general’s office, which noted it could have been “justifiable.” An autopsy revealed he died of congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease associated with morbid obesity “in combination with forcible restraint.”
Margaret Moore, district attorney for Travis County, said her civil rights division is investigating the death, but she didn’t say when that probe began. Moore said her office intends to present the case to a grand jury. Grand juries have not met in Texas for months because of measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that the Travis County D.A. has not yet reached out but that it “remains ready and willing to participate in the investigation.” It declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.
Williamson County Commissioner Terry Cook called Tuesday for Sheriff Robert Chody to resign.
“The continued killing of black citizens in our country under the hands of law enforcement has reached epidemic proportions, and it is horrific,” Cook said in a statement. “Like the pandemic we’ve been facing, it has come to roost in Williamson County.”
She said that in Chody’s less than four years as sheriff: multiple lawsuits have been filed against his office; he has taken no action against a lieutenant who posted stories online glorifying rape and the maiming of a black football player; the county has started investigating the $10 million sheriff’s office training center for unethical practices including the use of racial and sexual epithets and falsified records.
Furthermore, Chody invited “Live PD” to continue filming even after Williamson County ended its contract with the show, Cook said. The Williamson County Commissioners Court sued Chody and Big Fish Entertainment as a result.
A&E Network, which carried the program, said in a statement that neither the network nor “Live PD” producers “were asked for the footage or an interview by investigators from law enforcement or the District Attorney’s office.”
A&E said “Live PD” footage of the fatal encounter never aired because of the network’s policy against airing video involving a fatality. Furthermore, A&E said it no longer retained the unaired footage after it was informed the investigation had closed.