Robert Chody and a former county attorney were indicted Monday on charges of tampering with evidence stemming from the death in police custody of Javier Ambler, a Black man, during an arrest recorded by the program’s film crew.
While successful with viewers, the live-action — there is a delay — show angered local elected leaders and raised serious questions about the way cameras affected the behavior and police work of individual deputies who became stars on the show.
A&E network’s canceling of its most-watched show and the end of the long-running “Cops” show in June coincided with nationwide protests against police brutality and calls for greater police accountability after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for about eight minutes.
In June, the Austin-American Statesman and an ABC affiliate, KVUE-TV, reported that the video of Ambler’s March 2019 death had been deleted by “Live PD.” Not long after, prosecutors in Travis and Williamson counties opened a joint investigation, alleging that Chody had impeded their efforts to obtain the footage.
“There is a critical piece of evidence about which the public has a right to know,” said Margaret Moore, the outgoing Travis County district attorney, who is preparing to present evidence to a grand jury to secure a possible second indictment in the case.
The show’s production company, Big Fish Entertainment, did not return a call seeking comment.
Chody said the indictment is politically motivated and designed to derail his reelection. He accused prosecutors of dragging their feet on an 18-month-old case that he said garners their attention only now because of news coverage and the movement to end police brutality.
“I look forward to being exonerated,” Chody said during a news conference this week.
The sheriff’s administration of the department came under scrutiny during its 11-month contract with “Live PD,” triggering use-of-force investigations and questions about the performative nature of deputies’ tactics in a string of violent arrests.
Local news media reported that since the deputies premiered on the show in Nov. 2018, Chody assigned a specific unit to respond to calls flagged for the show by his communications staff. They also documented a 54 percent increase in dangerous and costly pursuits, most of which began with minor traffic infractions. Chody attributed the increase to population growth.
Chaos also ensued in county government. Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick complained that he could not obtain any evidence from “Live PD” for the prosecutions he pursued. The controversy culminated with Ambler’s death on March 28, 2019.
Outraged Williamson County commissioners voted to end the contract months after Ambler’s death. But Chody authorized a new contract without their knowledge. The commissioners sent a cease-and-desist letter and had to sue Chody to stop his office’s collaboration with “LivePD.” Some called for the sheriff to resign for what they said was recklessly exposing the county to liability.
“Only a careless sheriff would do that,” Commissioner Russ Boles said in April.
Local governments expose themselves to liability and have been on the hook historically when reality television turns into a thorny or deadly situation. The filming of a fatal high-speed crash in 1997 for the show “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol” led to a wrongful-death lawsuit in which the parents of the 21-year-old woman who was killed argued that the camera heightened an adrenaline-soaked situation and encouraged reckless behavior by troopers.
“Unless there are . . . aggressive controls, this isn’t going to end,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina who has researched high-risk police activities.
“It could be a wonderful way to show the public how policing works. But is that what’s really going to happen?” he asked
There is little research on how the presence of cameras influences law enforcement behavior, but some things are clear, said Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of media studies at Penn State.
“First of all, they know they are on camera, and because they are on camera, they need to enact good TV,” she said. “You’re not going to see a show about a police officer doing paperwork or handing out tickets.”
While the producers of shows such as “Live PD” have argued that they are valuable for holding police accountable, they are also cheap to produce and profitable for those who make them, experts said.
Media portrayals of police — whether fictionalized in procedurals or curated in reality shows — center law enforcement as protagonists and shape how viewers perceive reality.
“The concerns critics have is that they tend to glorify police work in uncritical ways and make it easier for viewers to identify with cops and not perpetrators,” said Darnell Hunt, the dean of social sciences at University of California at Los Angeles.
The deadly encounter with Ambler began when sheriff’s deputies tried to stop a Honda Pilot for failing to dim its headlights. The driver sped off.
With cameras rolling, the deputies pursued Ambler for 22 minutes. His vehicle collided three times with fixed objects on and off the roadway, until it finally crashed and stopped in Austin. Deputies struggled to arrest Ambler, body camera footage released in June shows.
They shocked the 40-year-old former postal worker with a stun gun four times during the arrest while Ambler complained that he suffered from heart problems. He said he could not breathe, according to video obtained by local media. Ambler stopped moving once deputies secured his hands, and he was pronounced dead at a hospital an hour later.
The Austin Police Department investigated Ambler’s death because it occurred in that department’s jurisdiction but has not released its findings. The sheriff’s office’s internal investigation cleared deputies of any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, city police brought in the district attorney’s office of civil rights to review the case.
The footage never aired, and regulations against broadcasting fatalities would have prevented it, show host Dan Abrams has said. He posted on his website that Big Fish Entertainment normally destroys footage within 30 days as a policy “so that we did not become an arm of law enforcement.”
But Chody, the sheriff, asked the company to hold onto the video for three months until June 2019, when “Live PD” producers said they were told that the investigation was over. The show’s lawyers said they did not receive any requests from prosecutors to produce the video before it was destroyed. He said prosecutors failed to request the evidence when they had the chance.