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‘Save me’: Texas man’s death in custody raises troubling questions

Members of the Austin Police Department in Texas kneel with demonstrators June 6 protesting the death of George Floyd.
Members of the Austin Police Department in Texas kneel with demonstrators who gathered June 6 to protest the death of George Floyd.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Police video and documents released more than a year after the death in custody of a black man in Texas show that sheriff’s deputies repeatedly used a stun gun on him despite multiple pleas that he couldn’t breathe. The man had been stopped following a car chase after he failed to dim his headlights.

The revelations in the 2019 death of Javier Ambler, in a report published Monday by the Austin-American Statesman and KVUE-TV, raise questions about the practices of Williamson County sheriff’s deputies. A local prosecutor involved in the investigation of Ambler’s death says the circumstances are also troubling because it was being filmed for A&E Network’s real-time police show “Live PD.”

The details about Ambler, a 40-year-old father of two boys, come as worldwide protests continue following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes while taking him into custody. Thousands paid their respects to Floyd on Monday at a public viewing of his body at a church in Houston, where he lived most of his life.

Ambler died March 28, 2019, after he was driving home following a poker game with friends, according to the report. Williamson County Deputy J.J. Johnson, who is regularly featured on “Live PD,” flipped on his flashing lights to pull Ambler over after noticing that he kept on his bright headlights facing oncoming traffic.

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After Ambler refused to stop, Johnson and the film crew riding along with him began chasing him until he crashed his vehicle near downtown Austin.

Johnson drew his gun and demanded Ambler exit his car. Ambler, who weighed 400 pounds, got out and showed his hands. Johnson, who is black and about half Ambler’s size, holstered his gun, pulled out his Taser and told him several times to get down.

The Los Angeles Police Department on Monday instructed officers not to use carotid restraints, chokeholds that restrict or block blood flow to the brain, pending a review by the city’s Police Commission.

It appeared Ambler turned toward his vehicle, and Johnson used his Taser, according to an internal investigative report the Statesman obtained under the Texas Public Information Act. Ambler dropped to one knee, rolled onto his back and stomach and appeared as though he was trying to stand.

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Another Williamson County sheriff’s deputy, who is white, arrived with a “Live PD” crew and shoved his Taser into Ambler’s back. As a struggle ensued, one of the deputies used a Taser on Ambler a third time, though the report says it’s unclear which deputy deployed his weapon.

An Austin police officer arrived at the scene as the deputies struggled to handcuff Ambler. Body-camera video from that officer recorded the final minutes of Ambler’s life.

Between gasps, Ambler says he’s trying to obey their commands. He tells the deputies four more times that he can’t breathe and pleads: “Save me.”

“I have congestive heart failure,” Ambler says. “I am not resisting.”

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Many great cops understand the proper role of police in communities, but they are a minority, both within the LAPD and across the country.

One of the deputies deployed his Taser a fourth and final time, the body-camera video shows. The deputies subsequently placed handcuffs on Ambler’s wrists after his hands went limp. The officers then realized he was unconscious and his pulse had stopped. Deputies performed CPR for several minutes until medics arrived.

Ambler was later pronounced dead.

Investigators with the Williamson County sheriff’s department of internal affairs determined in a report that the deputies did not violate the agency’s pursuit or use-of-force policies, according to the Statesman. The report did not indicate whether the deputies faced any disciplinary action or were forced to take time off because of the incident.

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Ambler’s death was ruled a homicide, according to the report made to the state attorney general’s office, which noted that the homicide 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.”

How to reshape the nation’s police forces has become a major campaign issue. President Trump hopes to portray Joe Biden as extreme.

Margaret Moore, district attorney for Travis County, which includes the part of Austin where Ambler died, said her civil rights division was still investigating the death, though she did not indicate why the probe has taken 15 months. She added that her office intends to present the case to a grand jury.

Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody said Monday that he couldn’t comment on Ambler’s death because of the ongoing investigation.

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“Live PD” did not respond to requests for comment. The video its crew recorded that night has not aired.

Ambler’s mother, Maritza Ambler, said in a recent interview that she’s been consumed by nightmares that her son met the same devastating fate as Floyd. Maritza added that she often warned him about interactions with law enforcement.

“I would mention it to him, just to remind him, he is a minority,” she said. “You have that against you, your color.”


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