The incident at the center of the controversy between local government and law enforcement officials took place on March 28, 2019, when J.J. Johnson, a deputy with the Williamson County Sheriff's Office, decided to stop Ambler because he failed to turn off his high beams for the benefit of oncoming traffic. As Ambler did not pull his vehicle over, Johnson initiated a 22-minute car chase.
At the time, Johnson was driving along with a crew from A&E’s police reality show “Live PD,” who filmed as the chase saw the two vehicles transit highways and nearby neighborhoods. The crew was captured on newly released bodycam footage recording the unfolding scenes as Ambler told responding officers that he couldn’t breathe and later as he lay dying.
Documents obtained by local news outlets Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV revealed that after Ambler crashed his vehicle and was ordered to exit, Johnson deployed his department-issued stun gun on Ambler after he reportedly appeared to turn toward his car door. Ambler was hit by electrical prongs three more times during the arrest, even after he told officers he suffered from congenital heart failure and that he couldn’t breathe.
The released bodycam footage starts moments before a backup Williamson County deputy deploys his stun gun a fatal, fourth time.
“Sir, sir, I have congestive … I have congestive heart failure … I have congestive heart failure,” Ambler is heard saying as officers go between demanding he comply with orders and threatening him with the stun gun. “Sir … sir, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
Video shows that Ambler continues to repeatedly tell officers on several occasions that he can’t breathe in between their constant orders that he stop resisting and lay on his stomach. “I’m not resisting … please … please,” were the last words uttered by Ambler.
Seconds after the stun gun is deployed, Ambler’s body goes limp; however, several moments pass before officers are heard recognizing that Ambler has no pulse. In fact, at one point an officer is heard talking to Ambler, urging him to “wake up.”
The video cuts off as officers are seen trying to do chest compressions on Ambler.
According to a report filed to the Texas attorney general’s office that was viewed by the Statesman, Ambler’s death was ruled a homicide, which could have been “justifiable.” The report noted an autopsy showed that Ambler died of congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease associated with morbid obesity “in combination with forcible restraint.”
An internal affairs investigation into the incident at the time determined that the responding deputies at the scene did nothing wrong, and that they had not violated any of the agency’s use-of-force or pursuit policies.
Police officers with the Austin Police Department (APD) were on the scene; however, they only arrived after the chase came to a close. At present, no officers associated with the department are under investigation.
Now, months after the incident occurred, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office is investigating the events in conjunction with the APD’s special investigations unit, since the chase ended in Austin, Texas.
Margaret Moore, the Travis County district attorney, told reporters on Monday that the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office had “stonewalled” the investigation into the death investigation by not allowing the release of footage filmed by the “Live PD” crew.
The footage itself has not been aired by the reality show, and the sheriff’s office has claimed it has not been contacted by the district attorney’s office.
Since the release of the footage, two Williamson County commissioners have called for Chody to resign, with Commissioner Terry Cook saying the “last three-and-a-half years of [Chody] at the helm are unacceptable.”
The Ambler case has also shed additional light on the ongoing dispute between the sheriff’s office and county commissioners over the agency’s continued relationship with “Live PD” after commissioners ended their contracts with the show. The Statesman reported that the film crew extended its work with the sheriff’s office after Chody signed his own contract with the show.
Ambler's pleas echo those similarly made by black Minnesota resident George Floyd, who was killed after a white police officer refused to remove his knee from Floyd's neck. Floyd had repeatedly yelled out that he was unable to breathe. All four officers involved in the Minnesota case have been arrested and charged.