Police video and documents released more than a year after the death of a black man in Texas show that sheriff’s deputies used a stun gun on him four times despite his multiple cries of “I can’t breathe” following a chase after for failing to dim his headlights.
Javier Ambler gasped for air, told police he had congestive heart failure and begged, “Save me” before he was stunned a fourth time and lost consciousness, according to a report published Monday by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.
The revelations about Ambler’s 2019 death raise questions about Williamson County deputies’ practice of pursuing drivers for minor crimes. A local prosecutor involved in the investigation of Ambler’s death also says the circumstances are troubling because it was being filmed for A&E Network’s real-time police show “Live PD.”
KVUE reports the sheriff’s office in February refused to release any information about the case, but turned over documents relating to an internal investigation late last month when the Texas Attorney General ruled the office had no legal standing to withhold them.
The details about Ambler, a 40-year-old father of two boys, come as worldwide protests continue following the police death of George Floyd. Like Ambler, Floyd was seen on disturbing video begging for air, and “I can’t breathe” has become a rallying cry for protesters calling for an end to police brutality against black men and women.
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. After Ambler refused to stop, Johnson and the film crew riding along with him began chasing him, leading to a 22-minute pursuit that ended when he crashed his vehicle near downtown Austin.
Johnson drew his gun and demanded Ambler to 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 to get down several times.
It appeared Ambler turned toward his vehicle, and Johnson subsequently used his Taser, according to an internal investigative report obtained by KVUE and the Austin American-Statesman. Ambler dropped to one knee, rolled onto his back and stomach and appeared as though he was trying to stand.
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 officers 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 follow their commands. He tells the deputies four more times, “I can’t breathe” and pleads, “save me.”
“I have congestive heart failure,” Ambler said. “I am not resisting.”
One of the deputies deployed his Taser a fourth and final time, the body camera video shows. The deputies subsequently placed handcuffs around 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.
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.”
The body camera video was released separately by the Austin Police Department. KVUE has reportedly not received dashcam video it requested from the Williamson County sheriff’s office.
A death-in-custody report filed with the Texas attorney general’s office and obtained by the Austin American-Statesman said Ambler did not assault deputies, did not threaten them and did not attempt to gain control of any of their weapons. The report said the most serious charge he would have faced would have been evading arrest.
Margaret Moore, district attorney for Travis County, which includes the part of Austin where Ambler died, said her civil rights division is 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 can’t comment on Ambler’s death due to the ongoing investigation. “Live PD” didn’t respond to requests for comment. The video its crew recorded that night has not aired. Moore told KVUE the footage has not been provided to investigations despite requests by her office.
Moore told KVUE she has questions about why the sheriff’s office initiated the pursuit.
“It is of very serious concern to any of us who are in law enforcement that the decision to engage in that chase was driven by more of a need to provide entertainment than to keep Williamson County citizens safe,” she said.
Moore has also accused Chody’s office of stonewalling the investigation. But in a statement released to CBS News, the sheriff’s office called that “misleading” and said the Travis County District Attorney’s office has not contacted them for information. The office said it stands “ready and willing” to help the district attorney’s investigation and said it “participated fully” in an investigation launched by the Austin Police Department, the results of which have been forwarded to the Travis County DA.
“In terms of any ‘Live PD’ footage, as a department, we do not control that footage,” the statement said. “However, I join the Travis County DA in requesting that ‘Live PD’ make any existing footage available for review by Travis County prosecutors.”
Maritza Ambler, Ambler’s mother, 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 her son, a former college football player and former postal worker, 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.”