AUSTIN, Texas — In the early morning hours of March 28, 2019, a detective with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office in central Texas stood outside a hospital room where the body of a 40-year-old Black man lay waiting to be transported to the coroner’s office.
The detective, Jason Waldon, had feared a day like this would come.
The body belonged to a father of two named Javier Ambler. He had died in a confrontation with police after being pursued by a sheriff’s deputy for failing to dim his headlights to oncoming traffic.
Williamson County deputies weren’t the only ones pursuing Ambler that night. They were joined by a camera crew with "Live PD," the reality TV show.
One of the deputies, James “J.J.” Johnson, narrated the 22-minute chase for the cameras as it happened. After Ambler crashed and exited his vehicle with his hands up, Johnson and another deputy restrained, struck and tased him at least three times, police records show. One of the last things Ambler said before he died was, “Please save me.”
Waldon, the on-call detective that night, was ordered to respond to the hospital. Even at that early hour, as a crime scene technician from the sheriff’s office arrived to photograph the body, Waldon felt convinced that Ambler wouldn’t have died were it not for the presence of the cameras from "Live PD."
“There is no way that pursuit would have been allowed to continue if they weren’t trying to make good TV,” Waldon said.
For less than a year, "Live PD" had been following Williamson County deputies as they arrested drunk drivers and suited up in tactical gear to serve arrest warrants. In the process, the show brought Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody and some of his deputies a modicum of fame among the show’s devoted fan base.
But that fame came at a cost.
"Live PD" not only wrought lasting damage in the lives of the people caught in the glare of its cameras, it also distorted the way criminal justice was meted out in the streets and courtrooms of Williamson County, according to police, court and other public records, along with dozens of interviews with current and former sheriff’s deputies and staff, attorneys and residents.
The show, which centered on dramatic busts and often humiliating interactions with civilians, influenced a wide range of critical decisions made by the sheriff and the deputies who worked for him. "Live PD" also threw a wrench into the court system, attorneys and deputies said, undermining defendants’ access to evidence and prosecutors’ ability to pursue cases.
The creator of "Live PD," along with its host and co-executive producer, Dan Abrams, touted the show as a raw, unvarnished view into policing. But it was canceled in June amid an outcry that producers had destroyed its footage of Ambler’s fatal encounter with the police, effectively denying what could be critical evidence to prosecutors and his family.
Late last month a Williamson County grand jury indicted the sheriff, along with a former county attorney, on felony evidence tampering charges related to the destruction of the footage. Both men are accused of destroying or concealing video and audio recordings “with intent to impair their ability as evidence” in the investigation of Ambler’s death, according to the indictments.
“The bottom line here is there are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick told NBC News in the weeks prior to Chody’s arrest. “The sheriff’s department had all those answers a long time ago.”
In a news conference after his release from jail, Chody, who is in a heated re-election race this November, characterized the indictments as a political witch hunt led by prosecutors desperate to save face.
“The facts are very clear and let me be very clear,” Chody said. “I did not tamper with evidence.”
“From the beginning, the Ambler incident has been hampered by prosecutors failing to act,” he added.
Waldon, who testified before the grand jury, said the Ambler case amounted to the realization of his worst fears.
“Several of us within the department had said the day is going to come when something terrible is going to happen on 'Live PD,'” Waldon said. “And then it did.”
‘The millionaire sheriff’
Long before "Live PD" came to town, Williamson County had a reputation for law-and-order that was uncompromising even by Texas standards. If you’re going to do it, locals say, don’t do it in Williamson County.
Like other lawmen who came before him, Sheriff Chody — who declined to be interviewed for this article — favored a white Stetson, talked tough on crime and didn’t shy from cameras. But his path to the county’s most powerful law enforcement office was unusual.
Chody was an Austin police officer when, in 2001, his wife bought a lucky lotto ticket, netting the couple more than $50 million.
Shortly afterward, the city of Austin settled a lawsuit against him alleging he had used excessive force against a Black epileptic teenager.
Chody later quit his job. Rather than retire with his millions, he remained in law enforcement as a Williamson County constable and was elected sheriff of the county in 2016, taking office in January 2017.
Unlike his predecessors, the “millionaire sheriff” was a prolific user of social media. But he didn’t only use it to broadcast information on drug seizures and other incidents. Just months into his inaugural term, Chody began tweeting at "Live PD" and Abrams, its host.
“@danabrams bring #LivePD here to Austin area in WilCo,” the sheriff tweeted that July, along with a photo of himself wearing his Stetson. “We will get you a cowboy hat.”
Since it first aired on A&E in 2016, "Live PD" consistently ranked as the top-rated show on basic cable, pulling in millions of viewers on Friday and Saturday nights.
Just like "COPS," the godfather of reality policing shows, the appeal of "Live PD" was police drama, from drug busts and beatings to rescues and high-speed pursuits. The show sometimes captured the humane, even heroic side of policing. But police officers’ often humiliating interactions with drug users, drunk civilians or anyone else on society’s margins were also fodder for the show.
But unlike "COPS," "Live PD" purported to show policing as it happened, without a filter. It was the “ultimate ride along,” according to its creator, Dan Cesareo. In six hours across two nights, producers inside the "Live PD" studio managed feeds from law enforcement agencies across the country as Abrams and policing experts weighed in.
“The level of transparency 'Live PD' offers is unlike any other police series on television,” Cesareo, head of Big Fish Entertainment, the production company that created "Live PD," said in a 2017 interview. “When an officer from a participating police department gets a call, we act as a natural extension of body-cams and dash-cams that officers are already using, and never know what will transpire.”
Chody’s efforts to get on TV didn’t go to waste . The county eventually approved a contract with Big Fish Entertainment, and Williamson County made its prime-time debut in November 2018.
Fans of "Live PD," better known as #LivePDNation on Twitter, loved Williamson County. The sheriff interacted with fans online, tweeting back and forth, promoting trading cards, collectable poker chips, T-shirts and giveaway contests. A local theater hosted “watch parties” where fans could gather to watch their neighbors get busted.
But for some deputies who weren’t on camera, it became clear, even in those early days, that the pressure to make good TV was trumping not only their responsibility to the law, but to the citizens they served.
“The badge isn’t just a symbol of authority over the public,” said a former deputy who now works at a different agency and was granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media. “It’s a symbol of the trust the public has in us.”
“But when 'Live PD' came on the scene, it was the glitz, the glamour, the lights,” the former deputy added. “Law enforcement went right out the window.”
‘Complete and utter destruction’
When nearly a dozen deputies armed with long guns descended on the home of Sarah Fairchild in January 2019, "Live PD" cameras followed closely behind.
The clip that appeared on the show opened with Lt. Mark Luera riding in the back of a tactical vehicle. Dressed in military-style gear, he states the suspect, Fairchild’s 27-year-old son Blake, is wanted on an arrest warrant for the manufacture and delivery of methamphetamine.
What Luera didn’t say, however, is that deputies had been observing the house for hours in preparation to make the arrest, according to a deputy with knowledge of the incident.
Blake, who was visiting the house, had appeared several times in the driveway in full view of the deputies conducting surveillance, according to the deputy. But moments before deputies moved to arrest him, supervisors called them off. "Live PD" was on its way.
Arresting officers, the deputy said, went from “being able to take an isolated suspect outside in the driveway, with minimal force, to utilizing a SWAT team that has 'Live PD' on the scene.”
Blake and his girlfriend were eating freshly delivered pizza when they glanced at the video feed of the security camera on the front porch.
“We just see a big tank pull up,” said Blake’s girlfriend, Brandy Laib.
As Blake ran to open the front door, one deputy smashed it open with a battering ram. Another tossed a flash-bang grenade into the living room, filling the house with smoke. Laib threw herself over the family’s dog. Blake dropped to the floor and put his hands on his head.
“If they would have just knocked, Blake would have come to the door,” Laib said. “They did not have to go that extreme.”
In the back of the house, deputies hurled a second flash-bang grenade through a window, into the bedroom where Blake’s 6-year-old son slept.
Fairchild cried when she saw the shattered glass on her grandson’s bed and the black scorch marks on the carpet. It was only by some kind of grace, she said, that he hadn’t been home that afternoon.
"He would have died had he been here,” she said. “This was uncalled for. It was unbelievable.”
The explanation for Blake’s arrest on "Live PD" was also misleading, according to court records and Blake's attorney. The arrest warrant stemmed not from a new drug manufacturing case, but from a judge revoking his bond after Blake admitted to using drugs and alcohol while on pretrial supervision.
“This was done,” Fairchild said, “totally, without a doubt, to make TV.”
Patricia Gutierrez, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said in a statement that the deputy’s account that an opportunity to make a peaceful arrest was abandoned in order to make TV is untrue.
Planned search and arrest warrants, Gutierrez said, are “executed using the safest timing and resources.” She did not elaborate.
A spokesperson for Big Fish Entertainment said that producers never pressured law enforcement to produce material.
"Live PD" turned policing on its head in Williamson County in other ways, too, according to interviews with nearly a dozen former and current deputies.
Once, detectives couldn’t use a license plate reading tool they needed to investigate a string of residential burglaries because it was being used on patrol with "Live PD," the former deputy said. In one case, the former deputy said, detectives were told to postpone filing a search warrant for a week to coincide with filming, causing them to lose access to critical DNA evidence.
In addition to serving warrants for the cameras, deputies increasingly initiated dangerous, high-speed pursuits — like the one that led to Ambler’s death — according to reporting by The Austin American Statesmen and ABC affiliate KVUE, which have extensively covered the fallout over "Live PD" and the sheriff’s office.
“'Live PD' was a distraction allowing complete and utter destruction of standardized best practices in law enforcement,” the former deputy said.
Dispatchers were told not to assign calls to deputies riding with "Live PD," said one former Williamson County dispatcher, who spoke on anonymity because the dispatcher still works in the field. Those deputies were marked by a special call sign for emergency dispatchers, according to an internal memo seen by NBC News.
“This will let communications know that you are not to be assigned calls but can chose to respond to any that you would like to,” a former patrol commander, Steve Deaton, wrote in the memo.
One night, the dispatcher accidentally sent a "Live PD" deputy to check on a burglar alarm that had gone off. Chody, furious, called the dispatcher’s supervisor.
“He was upset that I had tried to dispatch one of his units to one of those calls,” the dispatcher remembered.
The interaction left the dispatcher troubled.
The show “added unnecessary stress to an already stressful environment,” the dispatcher said. “Most of us are there because we want to save lives. It became more or less that we were having to cater to and do our jobs around the show.”
"Live PD" had “little to no impact on routine operations of patrol deputies beyond what we normally see with other enforcement activities like DWI enforcement,” Gutierrez said in a statement.
The show was also at the center of a growing morale crisis. On one side were the “rock stars” of "Live PD," some of whom had been hired or promoted despite troubling pasts.
On the other side were many of the county’s rank-and-file, who worried that they risked unceremonious demotions or firings if they did anything that seemed even mildly critical of "Live PD" or the sheriff.
It began to feel, Waldon said, like he and his fellow deputies had to “choose every day whether you’re going to follow your moral compass or stay employed.” (Waldon was fired in 2019 for allegedly falsifying time sheets, according to the Sheriff’s Office. He fought the charge and a judge reinstated his peace officer license.)
By contrast, several current and former deputies said that the officers featured on "Live PD" had wide latitude in how they conducted their law enforcement duties — and even received preferential treatment.
An internal investigation cleared both deputies involved in Ambler’s death — Johnson and Zach Camden— of wrongdoing. And then they were allowed to go right back on "Live PD."
“The guys that were on 'Live PD' could do no wrong,” said the former deputy. “They knew they could do no wrong. That meant they could do anything.”
Three months after the Ambler incident, Johnson and Camden were involved in another controversial use of force encounter.
This one, once again, took place in front of "Live PD" cameras.
‘Most exciting episode of the season’
In June 2019, a local man named Ramsey Mitchell attempted to flee after deputies pulled him over for a minor traffic violation. Mitchell, who had a bottle of MDMA pills in his pocket and was facing an outstanding warrant linked to a drug possession charge, didn’t get far.
Johnson and Camden, along with three other deputies, tased, restrained and struck Mitchell until he lost consciousness and bled out onto the asphalt.
“I remember being held up and punched and the police saying, ‘He won’t go down,’” Mitchell said. “I just kept thinking, ‘If you would put me down, I’m not resisting.’ I remember being balled up and they were still kicking and stunning me.”
The incident became one of Williamson County’s most dramatic turns on "Live PD." At the hospital, Mitchell said he overheard deputies talking as they followed his gurney on the way to get a CT scan.
Mitchell’s “ass whooping,” he heard one of the deputies say, was the “most exciting episode of the season.”
Mitchell lost two teeth, sustained a fractured jaw, and had surgery to reconstruct his eye socket.
He was charged with possession of a controlled substance and assault on a public servant, a charge later dropped by prosecutors. Mitchell pleaded guilty to the drug charge and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
An internal investigation determined the use of force was justified. But the Williamson County district attorney saw it another way.
It was a “brutal takedown,” Dick said.
Mitchell’s case is one of several excessive force incidents involving Williamson County deputies investigated by the Texas Rangers over the past year.
Attorneys representing Camden and Johnson said in a joint statement that “we have reason to believe the Texas Rangers looked into this use of force and did not identify any potential crimes committed by Johnson and Camden.”
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety declined to comment on the investigations.
When Ramsey Mitchell’s mother, Sandi Price, learned of Ambler’s death, she wondered why the same deputies had been put back in front of TV cameras, why "Live PD" was still in the county at all.
“Everybody that they stop and everybody they arrest and everybody they throw down in the street, those people aren’t actors,” Price said. “Those people belong to people.”
“A man died and they were allowed to go back on patrol, like it was business as usual,” she added. “And ya’ll continued to film. It’s mind-blowing to me as a human.”
Scott Lewis’s experience with "Live PD" and Williamson County deputies left lasting damage, too, after the show broadcast one of the worst moments of his life in January 2019.
Lewis, then 29, was a trading specialist and club lacrosse coach in Austin. He’d grown increasingly dependent on alcohol to cope with anxiety, one of the many aftereffects of a traumatic brain injury he sustained in a hit-and-run-accident. Weeks before he appeared on "Live PD," he attended an inpatient rehabilitation program, a major step toward sobriety.
But that night, he relapsed and was arrested for driving while intoxicated.
"Live PD" opened on Lewis as he performed a field sobriety test, broadcasting his face — and his sweatshirt, emblazoned with the name of the lacrosse team he coached — into millions of American homes.
Lt. Grayson Kennedy cuffed him and twice pointed out that Lewis had urinated on himself. When Lewis asked for Kennedy’s full name, he grew angry and pinned Lewis against a patrol car.
In the show’s oeuvre of humiliation-as-entertainment, it was a classic segment, and pretty much the last of Lewis that fans saw that night. For him, though, it wasn’t the end of the story.
Later that night, Lewis called his mother from jail. She told him the lacrosse team’s head coach had called her. The kids Lewis coached, who were out of town for a tournament, watched his arrest on their hotel room TV.
As he thought of all the other people he knew who could have seen what happened, he felt like he couldn’t breathe.
“It was like a Rolodex in my head,” Lewis said. “Anybody that I’ve ever talked to in my life. People that I haven’t thought of, and probably couldn’t think of again, just hundreds of people going through my head.”
Days later, he lost his coaching job. Throughout the spring, A&E reran the episode. Lewis received text messages from friends, asking if he was being arrested on "Live PD."
“When people get arrested without cameras it’s often considered rock bottom,” Lewis said. Having his arrest broadcast to millions of people, Lewis said, sent him into an “absolute downward spiral.”
“I accept responsibility for a lot of things,” added Lewis, who is now sober. “I just felt lucky that no one was hurt.”
From the start, Williamson County’s top prosecutor was uneasy about "Live PD" coming to town.
“You just see so many things that you want to try to correct or fix,” Dick said, describing what it’s like for a lawyer to watch policing in action.
Big Fish Entertainment’s contract allowed the sheriff’s office to review recorded segments, as well as the right to have a representative in the “local control room” to review material as it was shot.
What was most problematic for Dick was a stipulation in the contract that called for raw video to be destroyed by producers within 30 days, “except to the extent Producer is required to retain the Raw Footage pursuant to a valid court order or other state or federal laws.”
When he read the contract, Dick thought the provision was “ridiculous.”
Dick said he told Chody when "Live PD" first began filming that prosecutors needed footage and contact information for crew members who witnessed incidents. But the sheriff’s office wasn’t preserving either video or witness lists, and prosecutors weren’t made aware of the show’s presence when a case was filed by the sheriff’s office, he said.
A review of public records in criminal cases associated with "Live PD" confirmed that the show was often never mentioned in key documents, such as offense reports. Prosecutors sometimes only learned cameras filmed an incident if they watched the show, Dick said. Defense attorneys were often only able to get aired "Live PD" video if their client caught an episode and recorded it.
“It was like pulling teeth just to find out if something was on 'Live PD,'” Dick said.
Dick believed that "Live PD" video was evidence and should be made available to prosecutors and defense lawyers.
Walter Signorelli, a defense attorney and 31-year-veteran of the NYPD, said any video of an incident, whether captured by a reality TV crew or body camera, becomes material evidence in a criminal case.
“If video is there, it’s relevant and material and important,” he said. “A picture is worth a thousand words. A video is probably worth 10,000 words.”
By June 2019 the situation had reached a “boiling point,” Dick said. It began to look, he said, like prosecutors were withholding evidence from defendants.
Dick emailed a memo to Chody outlining what would be required of the Sheriff’s Office if his office were to prosecute felony cases that appeared on "Live PD."
He reminded the sheriff that videos of deputies doing police work “are evidence — just as the recording from a body cam or dash cam is evidence.” Texas law, he added, prohibits the destruction of evidence during an ongoing investigation.
Dick said he warned the sheriff that his office would be forced to decline to prosecute cases involving the show if the presence of "Live PD" wasn’t made known to prosecutors at the time of a case’s filing, and if witness lists and raw footage weren’t provided.
Records show that’s what happened. According to documents received through a public records request, since January 2019, the Williamson County district attorney’s office has declined to prosecute at least eight felony cases associated with "Live PD."
The spokesperson for Chody's office said in a statement that Big Fish Entertainment owned the video it produced and that obtaining a court order to preserve it was "the job of lawyers in the prosecutor's office."
“The sheriff’s office adjusted our reporting once requested to do so by the DA’s Office,” the spokesperson added.
Dick said Chody didn’t only withhold "Live PD" footage. The sheriff failed to disclose that a man died in a police encounter in front of "Live PD" cameras.
The county’s top prosecutor didn’t learn about Javier Ambler’s death until more than a year after it happened.
“The whole while I’m discussing needing video evidence with the sheriff and his staff, they knew about it,” Dick said. “But it was never mentioned to me.”
The sheriff’s office spokesperson said there was no need to alert Dick because Ambler’s death occurred in the neighboring county.
“I don’t think that’s normal at all,” Dick said.
The incident that led to the cancellation of "Live PD" began when deputies spotted a white Honda Pilot riding with its high beam headlights on.
The pursuit of Javier Ambler carried on through Williamson County into the city of Austin, the seat of Travis County, where he crashed his car for a fifth and final time and exited the vehicle.
In June, The Austin American Statesman and KVUE published disturbing video of Ambler’s struggle with police and his final moments gasping for air, captured by the body camera of an Austin police officer who responded to the scene. The outlets also broke the news that "Live PD" footage had been destroyed, according to A&E, after the sheriff's office completed its own investigation.
The Austin Police Department and the Travis County district attorney's office were still investigating Ambler's death at the time.
The revelation that the footage had been destroyed caused an outcry. Many in Williamson County, including investigators and Ambler’s family, believe that the professionally shot footage might have offered the clearest view of the fatal encounter — especially because neither Johnson nor Camden wore body cameras, according to the sheriff’s office.
“Body cameras were not available to these deputies at that time,” the sheriff’s office spokesperson said. But a review of dash cam video from the deputy’s cars, she added, “show the entire incident clearly.”
It remains unclear why Ambler didn’t pull over. Failure to dim his headlights would have resulted in a ticket. The former postal worker had no outstanding warrants, no weapons in his car.
His autopsy hasn’t been released because the investigation into his death remains active. But an in-custody death report filed with the Texas Attorney General’s office noted that Ambler didn’t appear to be intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.
According to the report, medical examiners listed his cause of death as congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease associated with morbid obesity “in combination with forcible restraint.”
The case gained renewed attention on Sept. 28 when Chody and Jason Nassour, the former county attorney, were indicted on evidence tampering charges linked to the destruction of the "Live PD" video. The indictments don’t go into detail about what exactly the two men are accused of doing.
Chody and Nassour deny the allegations.
Gerry Morris, Chody’s attorney, called the district attorneys’ belief that the "Live PD" video is critical evidence “baloney.”
“There were body cameras, there were car dash-mounted cameras, there was an APD chopper in the air that followed Mr. Ambler fleeing from the deputies,” Morris said. “Those videos show completely what happened. There is nothing that was on those 'Live PD' videos that could in any way alter the course of this case.”
Both the Austin Police Department and the Travis County district attorney declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said a grand jury will be empaneled in October to begin hearing evidence related to the destruction of evidence there. The grand jury will hear evidence related to Ambler’s death beginning next year, she said.
During a news conference following Chody’s arrest, Moore was asked by a reporter why Austin police allowed "Live PD" to walk away with footage that night.
“We’re conducting a very thorough investigation,” she said.
Williamson County commissioners voted to cut ties with "Live PD" in August 2019 amid concerns from prosecutors and defense attorneys. But this past spring, Chody announced he’d signed a new agreement with "Live PD," anyway. As sheriff, he argued, he didn’t need permission to grant cameras access to his law enforcement agency.
Commissioners sent both Chody and Big Fish Entertainment cease-and-desist letters, but the show continued filming. In May, the commissioners filed suit against the sheriff.
“Sheriff Chody jeopardized criminal convictions and citizen protection for TV ratings and exposure,” the lawsuit says. “The County and its citizens lose when its Sheriff prioritizes TV appearance and ratings over safety and proper police work.”
Despite the show's cancellation, the suit against Chody is still pending because commissioners want to prevent the sheriff’s office from contracting with another TV show without the county’s permission, according to the county’s lawyer.
It’s unclear whether "Live PD" will ever come back. Abrams has told #LivePDNation that he hopes it will.
“I (and many others) am continuing to push for its return and promise that I will update when we have any news,” Abrams tweeted last month.
He declined to comment for this article.
Early this year A&E announced it had greenlit a second season of Abrams’ newest show, called "Court Cam." While on set, Abrams offers analysis on the most dramatic moments caught on camera in America’s courtrooms – and interviews guests, including defense attorneys and judges, about their personal experiences.
Defendants spitting on prosecutors. Tearful victims reading impact statements to convicted killers. Families sobbing as judges sentence their loved ones to life without parole.
According to media reports, in its first season the show delivered more than 2 million viewers per episode and became A&E’s No. 1 new cable show on Thursday nights. Not as impressive as "Live PD," but a good start.
CORRECTION (Oct. 11, 2020, 2:50 p.m. ET): A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misidentified the two analysts on "Live PD." They are Kevin Jackson and Rich Emberlin, not Tom Morris Jr. and Sgt. Sean "Sticks" Larkin.