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Two Texas LEOs charged with manslaughter in ‘Live PD’ death

An internal investigation initially determined that the deputies hadn’t violated any policies

Former deputies James Johnson (left) and Zachary Camden

Former Williamson County Sheriff’s Deputies James Johnson (left) and Zachary Camden.

Austin Police Department via AP

By Tony Plohetski
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Two years and one day after Javier Ambler II died in custody, a grand jury in Austin has indicted deputies who chased the Black father for a minor traffic violation.

Former deputies J.J. Johnson and Zach Camden are charged with manslaughter after they chased Ambler, 40, in a 2019 pursuit that started because he failed to dim his headlights, then used Tasers on him repeatedly while he gasped that he could not breathe and had congestive heart failure. Ambler died minutes later.

The indictments mark the latest and most significant turn in the investigation into Ambler’s death, which gained national attention and raised questions about the influence of reality TV on American policing. Ambler’s family and attorneys believe that a partnership between “Live PD” and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office encouraged deputies to forsake sound policing practices to play to the cameras.

Grand jurors issued the indictments Monday. They were not made public until Tuesday, when the two turned themselves in to the Travis County Jail and were released on bond.

“With these indictments, we have taken another critical step towards justice for the Ambler family and for our community,” District Attorney Jose Garza said in a statement. “While we can never take away the pain of the Ambler family, the grand jury has sent a clear message that no one is above the law.”

Johnson and Camden face up to 20 years if convicted of the second-degree felony charge. Under Texas law, a person is guilty of manslaughter if he is aware of “but consciously disregards a substantial and justifiable risk” that a death will occur.

Ambler’s death received no public attention until 15 months later, when the American-Statesman and KVUE in June revealed details after fighting for months for public information under the Texas Public Information Act. Chody’s department refused to release records in the case. But in late May, just as the nation’s attention turned to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Texas Attorney General’s Office ruled Chody’s office had no legal standing to withhold them.

Both Johnson and Camden had “Live PD” crews with them the night of Ambler’s death. Johnson initiated the traffic stop, and Ambler led him on a 22-minute chase into Travis County, hitting several stationary objects along the way until his SUV became disabled in North Austin.

Johnson and Camden used Tasers on him four times, while an Austin police officer, who had not participated in the chase but responded to a call for help, arrived on the scene. The Austin officer’s body camera footage, which the Statesman and KVUE obtained in early June, showed Ambler collapsing and dying on a North Austin street after he cried, “Save me,” as deputies delivered a final Taser shock.

An internal investigation found the deputies violated no policies, and the chief deputy at the time praised Johnson and Camden for their “professionalism.”

Two days after the report, A&E and the company that makes “Live PD,” Big Fish Entertainment, canceled the program. Texas lawmakers are now considering the Javier Ambler Law that would ban such shows from working with police agencies in the state.

Immediately after the news broke of Ambler’s death, “Live PD” producers said they deleted footage of the incident after Chody told them the investigation had concluded, prompting Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick to open an evidence tampering investigation.

Investigators from both Williamson and Travis counties said they tried unsuccessfully for months to obtain the “Live PD” footage. Both agencies are investigating the case because the incident began in Williamson County and ended in neighboring Travis County. They claim Chody stonewalled them, a point the sheriff has disputed.

In September, the Williamson County investigation culminated in the indictments of Chody and Williamson County’s general counsel, Jason Nassour. Prosecutors have not detailed what steps they allege Chody and Nassour, who were both on the scene in the hours after Ambler’s death, took related to the video.

Big Fish Entertainment has said it never received a “valid subpoena” or court order for the video and had a contract provision with Williamson County that called for them to delete unaired raw video within 30 days.

But the investigation into the actions of Johnson and Camden, who are no longer on the force, languished for months as Ambler’s family and others pushed for justice. The case is being prosecuted in Travis County because Ambler died in the county.

Former Travis County district attorney Margaret Moore initially said she would present the case to a grand jury in August, then reversed course after Garza defeated her in a primary runoff election.

Garza, who took office in January after running on a platform of police accountability, has said the case is among his highest priorities.

Earlier this month, a Travis County grand jury indicted Austin police officer Christopher Taylor on a murder charge in the death of Michael Ramos. Taylor shot Ramos after he got in a car and began driving during an encounter with multiple officers.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Travis County grand jury indicts deputies on manslaughter charges in Javier Ambler death

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