This is the second high-profile indictment against Texas law enforcers in March for Garza’s office, which also secured first-degree murder charges against an Austin police officer in the 2020 shooting death of Michael Ramos. That was the first murder indictment ever returned against an Austin city police officer stemming from a use-of-force incident.
Tuesday’s indictments came the same week arguments began in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is charged with killing George Floyd. The deaths of Black men at the hands of American law enforcement precipitated a summer of protest last year and calls for change in Austin, Travis County and around the world.
“The expectations of our communities are changing, and that has been on clear display in multiple forms not just here in Travis County but all over the state and all over the country,” said Garza, who won a landslide victory last fall over the longtime incumbent while advocating for criminal justice reform during the protests against police violence.
“Our community has been really clear over the last 18 months that they will not tolerate violence against members of our community no matter who commits it, regardless of the person’s job title, stature or the uniform they wear,” he said.
The indictments, Garza said, are part of his work to restore trust and “build a criminal justice system that meets the aspirations of the people in our community.”
Ambler’s family is pursuing a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office after the March 28, 2019, encounter that killed the 40-year-old former postal worker.
Deputies tried to stop Ambler’s Honda Pilot that night for failing to dim its headlights. Inside the patrol vehicle were members of the film crew for “Live PD,” the hugely popular but now-canceled cable television show. Ambler sped off rather than stop, authorities said.
With cameras rolling, the deputies pursued Ambler for 22 minutes. His vehicle collided three times with fixed objects on and off the roadway until it finally crashed and stopped across the county line in neighboring Austin.
Deputies struggled to arrest Ambler, according to body-camera footage.
They shocked Ambler with a stun gun four times during the arrest while he complained of suffering from heart problems. He can be heard on video obtained by local news outlets, saying he had “congestive heart failure” and “could not breathe.”
Ambler stopped moving after deputies secured his hands. He was pronounced dead at a hospital an hour later. The grand jury declined to return charges against Austin police officer Michael Nissen, who also responded that night.
The manslaughter charges point to what prosecutors think was reckless behavior on the part of deputies who had a TV crew embedded with them for several weeks. Texas law prohibits prosecutors from talking about the evidence, but Garza said he has not seen the raw footage that is at the heart of the case.
Robert Chody, the former Williamson County sheriff who lost his reelection bid, was indicted last fall on felony charges of evidence tampering and is accused of helping to destroy the original video of Ambler’s arrest. The deadly encounter was preceded by a series of complaints and news coverage about overly aggressive behavior from deputies.
County commissioners were concerned that the glare of the cameras was having a bizarre impact on deputies and tried to shut down Chody’s arrangement with the show’s production company, Big Fish Entertainment. But the sheriff defied them by signing a new contract.
On the night of Ambler’s death, Big Fish said in a lawsuit filed this week, deputies and Austin police illegally seized the company’s equipment. The footage never aired. The company said it expected subpoenas but that they never arrived. The video was then destroyed.
The sheriff’s office’s internal investigation under Chody cleared deputies of any wrongdoing. Garza said the people of Travis County disagreed.
“Unfortunately what happened in this case is not dissimilar from what’s happened far too many times in communities across the country,” he said, “particularly in communities of color.”