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Family sues Texas county for wrongful death of Black man during 'Live PD' production

Ben Crump, an attorney representing Javier Ambler's family, accused the county sheriff of prioritizing "dramatic content" over the lives of residents.
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The family of a Black man who died after a car chase with deputies accompanied by a reality television camera crew filed a lawsuit against Williamson County, Texas, where a sheriff is facing tampering charges in the case.

The family of Javier Ambler filed suit Sunday under the state’s Wrongful Death Act, alleging that sheriff’s deputies engaged in a reckless chase of Ambler to make entertaining television for “Live PD,” the lawsuit said.

“He was my first born, you know. And I’m here to tell you they took him away...they took him away way too early from me,” his father, Javier Ambler, Sr., said. “He was supposed to bury me.”

His mother, Martiza Ambler, described her son as warm, as was someone who was loved.

“This lawsuit is not going to bring my child back, but it is going to represent some kind of justice for my son,” his mother said. “And that's all we're asking for.”

Javier Ambler
Javier Ambler.via Facebook

On March 28, 2019, two deputies in different squad cars engaged in a chase of Ambler for allegedly failing to dim his headlights. A “Live PD” camera crew who was with one of the deputies began filming the chase, according to the lawsuit.

Deputies followed Ambler for over 20 minutes, ending in the city of Austin where Ambler was restrained and tased at least three times. Ambler told the deputies that he could not breathe and that he had a heart condition, body camera footage released by Austin police and seen by NBC News showed.

His manner of death has been declared a homicide, according to a custodial death report filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Ambler died of congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease associated with morbid obesity, in combination with forcible restraint, the report said.

Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody’s “pursuit policy allowed officers to chase motorists who committed trivial traffic violations,” the family’s lawsuit alleges.

“Sheriff Chody’s permissive chase policy, and his policy of allowing Live PD to film policing activities as ‘entertainment,’ encouraged Johnson to chase Ambler for this trivial offense,” the lawsuit said.

Chody is accused of destroying or concealing audio and video footage from the “Live PD” filming that showed his deputies pursuing and using force on Ambler. Following an investigation by the district attorney offices in Williamson and Travis counties, Chody was indicted by a grand jury on a felony evidence tampering charge and released on a $10,000 bond in September.

The sheriff denied tampering with evidence in a press conference following his release. It does not appear that he has entered a plea, based on court records.

“From the beginning, the Ambler incident has been hampered by prosecutors failing to act,” Chody said after his indictment.

Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is part of the legal team representing Ambler’s family, called the behavior of Chody and his deputies “nothing short of disgusting.” Police chases and violent encounters doubled in the year following the county’s contract with “Live PD,” Crump told reporters Monday.

“Sheriff Robert Chody chose the dramatic content over safeguarding the lives of the residents he was sworn to protect and defend,” Crump said.

A representative for Chody’s reelection campaign denied the allegations made by the Ambler family’s attorneys on Monday in a statement to NBC News.“This timing of this effort seems to be politically motivated prior to Election Day. Pursuits were actually less common during the time that LivePD was filming,” the statement said.

An Austin American-Statesman analysis of more than 150 pages in pursuit reports published in August found a 54 percent increase in pursuits initiated by Williamson County deputies from the previous year, but that half of those pursuits occurred during the 28 weeks in which “Live PD” crews were filming with the department.

“Live PD” was cancelled in June by the A&E network, not long after the cancellation of Paramount Network’s “Cops,” which first aired on Fox in 1989. A&E said in a statement regarding that cancellation that it will work to determine whether there is a “clear pathway to tell the stories of both the community and the police officers whose role it is to serve them.”

A grand jury will hear evidence related to Ambler’s death beginning next year, according to Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore.

The Williamson County Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment on Monday.

A representatives for A&E did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday. Neither the network nor the production company are named in the family’s lawsuit. A spokesman for Big Fish, the production company for “Live PD,” declined to comment.

The Williamson County Commissioner’s Court said it does not comment on ongoing or pending litigation when asked for comment on the family’s lawsuit Monday.