Bill Banning Law Enforcement From Contracting With Reality Television Clears Texas House

HB 54 bans Texas law enforcers from reality TV deals

A Javier Ambler mural on South Congress
A Javier Ambler mural on South Congress (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Two years ago, J.J. Johnson and Zach Cam­den were among the Williamson County sheriff's deputies featured on the highly rated reality television show Live PD. Their boss, former Sheriff Robert Chody, had brought the show to Williamson County and regularly promoted it on social media as a recruiting tool, he said, though he also enjoyed the TV spotlight. County commissioners tried to cancel the contract with the show, which Chody ignored, leading to his being sued by his own county government. But then it was revealed that Javier Ambler, an unarmed Black man with a heart condition, had died after being chased into Travis County by Johnson and Camden and the Live PD cameras and then shot four times with a stun gun while he pleaded, "I can't breathe," and the cameras rolled.

“Policing is not entertainment.” – State Rep. James Talarico on HB 54

Now, Live PD is canceled; Chody lost a reelection bid; he, Johnson, and Camden are awaiting trial on felony charges; and state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, is shepherding a bill through the Texas Legislature to ban state and local law enforcement from contracting with reality television shows. Talarico's House Bill 54, known as "Javier Ambler's Law," cleared the full House on a 110-34 vote on April 15 and now awaits action in the Senate.

"Policing is not entertainment," Talarico said. "In the tragic murder of Javier Ambler, we saw what happens when law enforcement leaders are more interested in boosting their ratings than in protecting our communities."

Ambler's death occurred in March 2019 and received no public attention until Austin American-Statesman and KVUE reporter Tony Plohetski was able to force Chody to release information through public information requests a year later. His detailed account of Ambler's death appeared in June 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests against police violence were erupting across the nation.

Within days of the story's publication, Live PD – already on hiatus after the death of George Floyd – was axed for good, but John­son and Camden had been cleared in an internal investigation, with Chody praising their professionalism. The Live PD video of Ambler's death was destroyed after Chody told the show's producers that the investigation was complete, but body-worn camera video from Austin police who arrived at the scene captured Ambler's last moments. In September 2020, Chody and his general counsel Jason Nassour were indicted by a William­son County grand jury on evidence tampering charges.

Travis County District Attorney José Garza, who, in his successful campaign to unseat incumbent Margaret Moore, promised he would bring the Ambler case to a grand jury, secured indictments of Johnson and Cam­den for manslaughter, and of Chody and Nas­sour for the same evidence tampering charges, in March. Johnson and Camden face 20 years in prison; Chody and Nassour face 10.

Ambler's parents, Javier Sr. and Maritza, are suing the four men, along with the city of Austin, for their son's death. They expressed their gratitude to the D.A.'s Office earlier this month after the indictments were handed down. "We sincerely thank Mr. Garza and his team, and hope they are able to secure a conviction," Ambler Sr. said. "Our goal has always been to hold these officers accountable so that there are no more families who have to suffer like ours has."

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87th Texas Legislature, House Bill 54, HB 54, James Talarico, Javier Ambler, Javier Ambler's Law, J.J. Johnson, Zach Camden, Live PD, Williamson County Sheriff's Office, Robert Chody, Jason Nassour, Tony Plohetski, José Garza, Travis County District Attorney's Office, Javier Ambler Sr., Maritza Ambler

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