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The legislation came after a Black man died in police custody in 2019 while being filmed for a documentary TV series. The footage was destroyed, and details of his death emerged only after local news outlets pushed for answers.
Lawmakers in Texas last week approved a bill that would ban state and local law enforcement agencies from contracting with reality television shows, a proposal prompted by Javier Ambler, a Black man whose death in police custody was filmed by a television crew but never aired.
The footage, recorded by a camera crew working for the since-canceled A&E documentary series “Live PD,” was deleted after 30 days due to a clause in the network’s contract with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.
The bill, named Javier Ambler’s Law, prohibits law enforcement agencies, including police departments and sheriff’s offices, from authorizing “a person to accompany and film a peace officer acting in the line of duty for the purpose of producing a reality television program.” Journalists “reporting on a matter of public concern” are exempted.
Ambler, 40, died in police custody in March 2019. The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office declined for months to release details of his death, which emerged only after months of investigative reporting by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.
Records obtained through the state’s Public Information Act revealed that deputies began tailing Ambler after he failed to dim his headlights for oncoming traffic. Ambler didn’t pull over, resulting in a high-speed chase in which he collided with “stationary objects” four times before crashing a final time, the American-Statesman reported last June.
Ambler got out of his car and showed his hands, but when he “appeared to turn toward his car door,” Deputy J.J. Johnson used his Taser, the American-Statesman reported. Johnson and backup officers tased Ambler four times as he repeatedly told them he had congestive heart failure and couldn’t breathe.
“Live PD” destroyed the recording of Ambler’s death due to a clause in its contract with the sheriff’s office that required the disposal of unused footage after 30 days. Ambler’s death did not initially attract media attention, and his family was told only that he died in police custody.
According to an investigation by the American-Statesman, violent encounters between the sheriff’s office and civilians nearly doubled when “Live PD” joined the agency, from 43 in 2017 to 82 in 2019.
“During the weeks when the reality TV show filmed with the department, deputies used force significantly more often than during weeks when cameras weren’t on patrol,” the paper reported. That trend has happened elsewhere, researchers have noted—a 1994 study of similar shows, including the long-running “Cops,” found that police officers were “generally more likely than criminal suspects to be portrayed as using aggressive behaviors.”
State Rep. James Talarico, the bill’s lead sponsor, cited that statistic after the proposal passed the House, noting on Twitter that “this is not an isolated case.”
“Other police departments around the country saw similar effects after contracting with reality TV shows,” he continued. “With this legislation, we can say once and for all: policing is not entertainment.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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