One plaintiff, who Williamson County Sheriff's deputies believe might have been suicidal, says officers unleased a police dog that mutilated his genitals when they arrested him on a charge that was never prosecuted.
Another claims a rookie deputy threw her to the ground after pulling her over for a minor traffic violation with her young children in the car. He refused to let her use the bathroom at the hospital, she says, forcing her to urinate on the emergency room floor. Deputies jailed her for resisting arrest, but prosecutors dismissed the case.
The mother of one man contends her son was so mentally ill that he ate from the toilet. When officers found him profusely vomiting, they moved him to another cell but delayed getting him to the hospital, she says. He later died.
The stack of lawsuits against Williamson County involving the alleged actions of its deputies highlight some of the most shocking claims of a runaway department under a renegade sheriff.
Now, the bill is coming due for taxpayers.
Excessive force complaints: Two more federal lawsuits filed against Williamson County
Already, the county is seeing skyrocketing insurance premiums and a growing number of suits from former Sheriff Robert Chody's tarnished administration that threaten to top the county's maximum annual coverage.
All told, there are now an unprecedented 14 pending claims from Chody's four years in office. The county has paid out $407,482 in deductibles and attorneys' fees, and its insurance companies have settled cases so far totaling $2.4 million. The number of suits is more than the total during the 12-year tenure of the previous sheriff, James Wilson, according to county records.
But several potentially high-dollar cases are still pending and center on allegations of excessive force and questionable tactics from the department’s starring role in the defunct reality TV show “Live PD.”
Plaintiffs include the family of Javier Ambler II, represented by Ben Crump, one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights lawyers. Ambler was a 40-year-old father who died in March 2019 after deputies used their Tasers on him repeatedly while TV cameras recorded his final gasps. Asher Watsky and his father are suing after deputies busted down their door two months after Ambler's death and stormed their home to arrest Watsky on an assault charge while the show broadcast the arrest to a national audience.
The lawsuits, some resulting from county’s participation in the show, are an aspect of the arrangement that officials had failed to predict as some, including County Judge Bill Gravell, sought — at least initially — to benefit politically from the glow of Hollywood lights shining on Williamson County.
Gravell, who took office in 2019 and posed for pictures with Chody and deputies promoting the show, is among the officials who say the former sheriff failed to inform them of encounters that could result in litigation, including Ambler’s death, leaving them blindsided by the number of claims facing the county.
And an assistant county attorney, whose job as general counsel at the time was to help protect the county’s interests, instead stood with Chody in January 2018 to help persuade commissioners to approve a contract with the show. Both Chody and the attorney, Jason Nassour, now face evidence tampering charges in Ambler’s death.
Their attorneys say they are not guilty.
Gerry Morris, who represents Chody, told the American-Statesman that he believes the county likely will receive more suits because it is already demonstrating a willingness to settle.
"They need to buck up and litigate these things," he said. "It is just an ATM right now. You file a suit and the county pays."
Several suits cite findings of a yearlong investigation by the Statesman and KVUE-TV that revealed patterns of violent policing that spiked during the department’s partnership with “Live PD.”
“There clearly is an uptick in lawsuits as a result of Sheriff Chody’s administration,” Gravell said. “Our citizens expect better than this, and we will do better than this. It’s disappointing.”
The number of cases against the county from Chody’s four-year term are a hindrance for a government that has struggled to recover from the fallout of its tough-on-crime legacy that included the notorious case of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder before he was found in 2013 to have been wrongly convicted and was freed. The case raised concerns about the county’s law enforcement and criminal justice system.
When Chody took office in 2017, many in Williamson County viewed him as part of a new, more professional and progressive group of elected leaders who were still able to preserve the county’s historically deep conservative values.
But in June 2020, Chody’s tenure brought national attention to the county after the Statesman first reported Ambler’s death. Deputies chased Ambler in a pursuit that started because he failed to dim his headlights, and they used Tasers on him as he cried that he had a heart condition and could not breathe.
In the 13 months since, the Statesman uncovered other examples of violent uses of force and Chody, a Republican, was defeated in his bid for reelection in addition to the criminal charges he and Nassour face.
Sheriff Mike Gleason, who took office in January as the county’s first elected Democrat in 25 years, said the department is responding to lawsuits while still trying to usher in new programs and different policing philosophies. Gleason said he feels some of his corrective actions, including the removal of several deputies after violent incidents, highlight flawed practices of the past.
“I feel responsible,” Gleason said. “I took an oath and have an obligation to clean this up and make it right. But every time I do something, I feel like I am adding another zero to somebody’s check because the county has to pay for it in terms of damages.”
Lawsuits follow Williamson County's partnership with 'Live PD'
Of the current five county commissioners, three were in office when the Williamson County Commissioners Court blessed Chody’s participation in the show by approving a contract in early 2018 with “Live PD” and its production company, Big Fish Entertainment. In no public discussion did they express concern about possible incidents related to the show that could prompt litigation.
Commissioner Terry Cook said she originally voted for the show because Chody convinced her that it would be a boon for recruitment and positively showcase the county to a national audience.
“We did not anticipate the amount of damage Chody and his guys were doing,” Cook, a Democrat, said. “This guy was going to play his game any way he wanted, and we didn’t know it.”
Commissioner Cynthia Long declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuits, and Commissioner Valerie Covey did not return calls seeking comment.
Nassour, who had encouraged commissioners to approve the “Live PD” contract, remains on the county payroll.
County Attorney Dee Hobbs said in a recent interview with the Statesman that he has reviewed the allegations against Nassour and that, based on the limited information he has, he has found no reason to remove Nassour. Nassour no longer serves as general counsel, however, because the county commissioners removed the position from Hobbs’ budget amid revelations of Ambler’s death.
When the show’s relationship with the county started, “Live PD” had been in production less than two years, with only a couple of other notable lawsuits involving the show nationally, including two in a New Haven, Conn., suburb that have since settled with plaintiffs for an undisclosed amount. A handful of other suits have been filed and settled involving law enforcement agencies and the show nationally, but Williamson County appears to have been fertile ground for lawsuits related to the show.
Eighteen months into Chody’s partnership with "Live PD," the county commissioners cited an array of concerns, including the mistreatment of residents, in canceling a contract with the program in August 2019. But Chody then made an end run around the county, developing his own agreement with the production company, and the commissioners sued him, saying that doing so was outside the scope of his authority. The commissioners, who spent $287,687 on attorneys' fees for the suit, dropped the case when Chody lost his reelection campaign.
That Williamson County commissioners must now contend with lawsuits from Chody’s administration offers an insight into the structure of county government in Texas and highlights their two years of frustration with the former top lawman.
Commissioner Russ Boles said that because Chody was an elected official, the five-person Commissioners Court had no control over his policies under the Texas Constitution. But despite that lack of influence over the agency’s day-to-day operations, the group must contend with the legal fallout as the county’s administrative board.
“As a county commissioner, we have numerous elected officials,” Boles said. “Those people don’t work for us, but we do have to handle their liabilities. County government doesn’t act as intuitively as people would like it to.”
Across Texas, local governments have different strategies to respond to lawsuits.
Many, including the city of Austin, operate their own litigation fund, setting aside money each year based on existing or expected suits. Others, including Williamson County, have for years turned to outside companies to provide coverage.
According to the county auditor’s office, Williamson County holds two insurance policies relating to law enforcement conduct. One, through a division of Travelers Insurance, has a $2 million annual limit with a yearly premium of $179,339. The second, through a company called QBE, has a $3 million limit with a yearly premium of $320,939, providing the county a total of $5 million in coverage annually.
In 2020, because of the growing number of cases against the county, both companies raised their rates. The annual premium for Travelers rose about $55,000, but QBE’s skyrocketed 332%.
“We have budgeted accordingly,” Gravell said. “It comes out of my pocketbook and the pocketbook of Williamson County residents.”
Officials said the county does not operate a litigation fund for possible settlements, but it does have several million in reserves to respond to emergencies.
Among the suits, the case involving Daniel McCoy is the only other case in addition to Ambler’s that involves an in-custody death. County officials settled the case for $1.6 million in April.
McCoy died at the hospital five days after he was removed from the jail, but the suit said staffers could have saved his life had they sought medical help when they saw him repeatedly vomiting in April 2018 after a mental break that included drinking his own body fluids.
He had been booked into jail after his arrest on assault charges while he was a patient at a psychiatric hospital.
Gravell said he thinks the county ultimately will have enough insurance coverage to address the remaining suits without exceeding coverage totals, although experts say it is difficult to know how much a settlement or judgment might cost because of varying details in in-custody death and excessive-force cases.
Lawsuits against Williamson County sheriff, deputies are a quest for justice
Plaintiffs who filed the suits say going after the county isn’t about money. Instead, it is a fight to help continue to change the county’s law enforcement practices.
Marquina Gilliam-Hicks’ claim is among the newest the county has received. The high school coach said in her recent suit that in June 2019, two months after Ambler’s death and as use-of-force incidents were rising within the department, Deputy Sean Feldmann demanded to see her identification after he said he was responding to a noise complaint when Hicks and her friend were having a "somewhat boisterous conversation" outside their apartment.
The situation rapidly escalated, with Gilliam-Hicks’ friend recording what happened on cellphone video, before Feldmann is seen picking her up and body-slamming her to the ground when she questioned why he needed her identification. She was arrested and booked into jail on a charge of interfering with public duties. Prosecutors later dropped the case.
Gilliam-Hicks said discussing what happened two years later still traumatizes her.
“Will justice be served by just my lawsuit? No,” she said. “Is it a start? Yes.”
The Watskys feel similarly.
Nearly two years after the department’s SWAT team busted through his front door, Gary Watsky said he and his son are still recovering.
The Statesman reported in July 2020 that about a year earlier, Asher Watsky had been in court, having gone through courthouse security, on a charge stemming from a fight with his roommate. Instead of quietly arresting him at the courthouse on a new charge related to the case, Chody’s deputies waited several hours until he had returned home — and with the TV show broadcasting live — to arrest him through a “no-knock” takedown.
Gary Watsky said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and that his son has difficulty getting a job because of the incident.
“I am all for the police. I respect the police, and I believe there are good people in law enforcement. But this type of behavior is what is causing the problems we have in our society today,” he said. “It was completely unnecessary, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else. That’s the bottom line.”
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Williamson County starring on 'Live PD' led to excessive force suits