Report: Texas officers involved in 2019 custody death received gift cards

Sheriff's office leaders reportedly rewarded deputies who used force on the job with steakhouse gift cards in Williamson County, Texas.
Sheriff's office leaders reportedly rewarded deputies who used force on the job with steakhouse gift cards in Williamson County, Texas.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Two Texas sheriff’s deputies involved in the 2019 custody death of a Black man received steakhouse gift cards from superiors as a reward for using aggressive tactics during previous arrests, according to an exclusive report by the Austin American-Statesman.

J.J. Johnson and Zach Camden, who used a Taser four times on Javier Ambler before he died in March 2019, were among the Williamson County Sheriff’s officers who received the perks.

Reports said Ambler, a 40-year-old father, pleaded with deputies that he had a heart condition and could not breathe before he died.

»THIS WEEK: LA deputy, 1 of 2 wounded in ambush, released from hospital

A subsequent investigation by the Texas Rangers later revealed that deputies were regularly rewarded for using excessive force, and that the arrangement was common at places such as Logan’s Roadhouse.

In a recorded interview, former Deputy Christopher Pisa told investigators that Cmdr. Steve Deaton came up with a clever code name for deputies he considered worthy of the gift cards, the Statesman reported.

“They had the intention that we were all ‘WilCo badass’ and, if you went out there and did your job and you had to use force on somebody and he agreed with it, then you would get a gift card,” Pisa said in an audio recording obtained by the American-Statesman.

Former Sgt. Troy Brogden, who resigned from the department in 2019 after 20 years, backed up Pisa’s claim and told the Statesman that Deaton gave the cards “for what he considered good uses of force.”

“He would talk about it in groups, including supervisors meetings and classes,” Brogden said. “I was like, ‘What the hell?’”

The revelations come to light as a national debate rages about how to root out police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

»FROM JUNE: Police unions brace for fight as calls grow to ‘defund’ law enforcement

At least two law enforcement experts accused the suburban Austin department of encouraging violence against citizens, the Statesman reported.

“That makes no sense to me at all,” said Jeff Noble, a retired deputy chief with the Irvine, California, Police Department and a national policing expert. “The incentive is, ‘Let’s go out and use more force so we can get more gift cards.’ The fear is that you are incentivizing bad behavior.”

In recent months, the Statesman has uncovered several other troubling practices at the department, including the hiring of deputies with checkered pasts. At least five cases of excessive force are being investigated by the Texas Rangers and the Williamson County district attorney, the Statesman reported.

Notably, the Williamson County department was featured last year on the reality TV show “Live PD,” which was canceled in June after the Statesman revealed that the show had destroyed footage of the incident in which Ambler died.

Authorities are also looking into a violent arrest that was broadcast on “Live PD” and a deputy’s attack on a 20-year-old domestic violence victim.

Sheriff Robert Chody said in a statement: “Literally, the only use of cards I recall specifically was for a deputy who was able to recover some excellent fingerprints that ended up helping an investigation resulting in a warrant for that suspect and for a capture of a burglary suspect.”

“I have no idea what ‘good use of force’ means,” Chody wrote.

One of the incidents under investigation is an April 2019 traffic stop Pisa conducted in which he used force on an African American woman. Officials have not released details of the incident, which triggered a criminal investigation and prompted Pisa’s resignation.

Rangers interviewed Pisa six months after he resigned.

In an audio recording of that interview, provided to the Statesman by Pisa’s lawyer, the deputy said after the April incident he expected to receive a gift card from his superiors.

Pisa said the department’s practice of handing out gift cards in certain use-of-force cases was “common knowledge” and that Deaton was responsible for reviewing incidents and awarding the cards.

“It was something everybody knew,” Pisa said. “He has even said it to people in meetings.”

“You are saying that — correct me if I am mistaken — that Cmdr. Deaton, that it is known that Cmdr. Deaton gives out gift cards to steakhouses or wherever to people for using force?” the Ranger asked again.

“A good use of force,” Pisa responded.

— Information provided by Tribune News Service was used to supplement this report.