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

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Police video and documents released more than a year after the in-custody death 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 following a chase after he failed to dim his headlights.

The revelations in the 2019 death of Javier Ambler raise questions about Williamson County deputies’ practice of pursuing drivers for minor crimes, according to  a report published Monday by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV. 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.”

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. 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 to exit his car. Ambler, who weighed 400 pounds (181.44 kilograms), 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 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.

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 adhere to their commands. He tells the deputies four more times that he 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.”

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.

Javier’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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