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Casting calls: Texas sheriff hired troubled officers to play to 'Live PD' cameras

Tony Plohetski
Austin American-Statesman
Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody promoted Mark Luera to detective in March 2019, about 18 months after he joined the department. Months later, he promoted him to lieutenant over the department's troubled training academy.

When Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody needed a star to represent his department on the reality show “Live PD,” he found one in a tough-talking deputy he hired months before.

Mark Luera joined the force in November 2017, about 10 months before TV cameras began rolling on patrols in the largely suburban county north of Austin, Texas.

Soon, Luera was a fixture in olive-green tactical gear narrating harrowing scenes during high-risk arrests and home invasions to highlight the dangers and drama of police work.

“A true leader,” Chody captioned a selfie of the two in June 2019. In another post, Chody called Luera a “Wilco Rock Star.”

The department’s star is also a disgraced former city of Austin police officer whom Chody hired days after the city had been set to fire him for using his special airport access to bypass security, then repeatedly lying about it.

In the past three years, Chody has hired at least a dozen officers with checkered pasts to his force of 550.

In most instances, those deputies have quietly worked off camera with no subsequent allegations of misconduct.

But in others, Chody, who pursued the highly-rated reality show to showcase his department, appeared to gamble on applicants who were willing to play to a TV audience. Former employees say that at times he treated deputies’ application process as “Live PD” casting calls rather than assessing their temperament for sound law enforcement.

With cameras trained on them, some have engaged in aggressive and questionable police tactics.

Among the officers with notable past records are the two who used a Taser on Javier Ambler in March 2019. The 40-year-old Black man died while begging for his life as “Live PD” cameras rolled.

“If you are looking for guys who are chasing Hollywood lights with blue lights, you’re going to get exactly what we got – and that is a disaster,’” said Mike Klier, former president of the Williamson County Deputies Association, whom Chody fired in June.

The state’s law enforcement commission has expressed serious concern about the department’s hiring, and at least one deputy quit because of the sheriff’s repeated dismissal of warning signs discovered during background checks.

The department said the suggestion that “Live PD” played a role in its hiring is “ridiculous.” It said that employment decisions are based on a review of each individual that “includes all the pluses and minuses.”

Revelations of questionable hiring practices come amid increasing scrutiny of the department after the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV in June revealed details of Ambler’s death. Two days later, “Live PD” producers canceled the show. In the weeks since, the newspaper has probed other instances in which deputies pummeled a suspect during an arrest and unnecessarily deployed a SWAT raid on the home of another suspect. Both were aired on “Live PD.”

Experts say hiring deputies with flawed histories damages a department’s community image, destroys its morale and unnecessarily burdens taxpayers who may have to pay for officers’ misdeeds.

“Law enforcement officers have the power to take away a citizen’s freedom, and even in rare instances to take away life,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, a national police behavior expert. “You simply cannot entrust that to someone about whom there is any doubt that they have the proper skills and moral compass and temperament to do the job.”

A deputy’s Williamson rise

Throughout his department’s 18-month run on “Live PD,” Chody often claimed the show helped build public trust in law enforcement by creating more transparency. He routinely said it helped with recruiting, giving deputies a chance to soak in accolades from a built-in fan base called the “Live PD Nation.”

The Williamson County sheriff’s office joined the program in September 2018.

By then, Luera was nearing his first anniversary as a Chody deputy and was eyeing a promotion to the rank of detective, a move that came as his participation in the show grew.

Luera, who did not respond to requests for comment, resigned from the Austin Police Department three days before signing on in Williamson County in 2017. An internal investigation found Luera used a federally issued badge to circumvent security at the Austin airport for a Cancun vacation. He allowed his family and friends to go through security unchecked, records show.

Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody promoted Mark Luera to detective in March 2019, about 18 months after he joined the department. Months later, he promoted him to lieutenant over the department's troubled training academy.

The Police Department planned to fire him at a disciplinary hearing that November after investigators said they found that he was repeatedly dishonest about the incident.

Police Chief Brian Manley issued a scathing disciplinary report: “His dishonest statements during the criminal investigation will compromise his credibility as a witness if he continues to serve as a police officer.”

Williamson County said in a statement that it was aware of Luera’s “honorable and meritorious service” and “findings in the incident where he made mistakes.” The statement said officials had received positive recommendations from Luera’s former supervisors and others.

Chody promoted Luera to detective in March 2019. Four months later, as Luera’s stardom and fan base grew, Chody bypassed his own promotional process and promoted him to lieutenant in charge of the department’s training academy.

In his two and a half years with the department, Luera has been at the center of at least two controversial incidents involving “Live PD.”

In May 2019, Luera and fellow deputies had a chance to arrest a suspect without fanfare when he appeared for a court hearing on another matter. Knowing cameras would be following Luera later that day, sheriff’s office staff hid the arrest warrant, according to District Attorney Shawn Dick, so Asher Watsky would not be arrested in court. Then Luera led a dramatic raid on his home that was televised live.

The next month, Luera was one of five deputies involved in the violent arrest of Ramsey Mitchell, who said he was left with permanent scars after deputies piled on top of him, Tased, kicked and punched him. He had tried to run away after being stopped for a minor traffic violation. Deputies involved in the arrest of Mitchell, who was wanted on drug crimes, are being investigated by the Texas Rangers for the incident.

Luera is one of two deputies Chody hired to his leadership ranks with a disciplinary past.

Cmdr. Steve Deaton helped producers plan the placement of deputies around the county to capture the most compelling scenes.

Deaton had been disciplined while working at the Austin Police Department for making inappropriate comments about another officer and for leaving his badge and gun in a Target shopping cart. The sheriff’s department noted in a statement to the Statesman that Deaton “was the most highly decorated officer from APD.”

Chody reprimanded him after a complaint was made public that accused Deaton of challenging deputies to have sex with a “Live PD” producer -- a claim that Chody said was not entirely factual.

Four months later, Chody did not discipline Deaton after disturbing and graphic Facebook posts were made public in which Deaton used toy figures to depict graphic scenes of date rape and other violent acts. Chody said Deaton, who declined to comment, had a First Amendment right to free speech. Deaton resigned the next month.

Two deputies at center of Ambler case 

“Live PD” production was in full swing when Chody hired two deputies with disciplinary pasts. The two were friends from the nearby Bastrop County sheriff’s department, and one would become Chody’s newest star.

J.J. Johnson initiated the pursuit that led to Ambler’s death after the former football player failed to dim his headlights to oncoming traffic. Zach Camden, with whom Johnson had patrolled in Bastrop County, joined him at the scene when Ambler crashed to a stop. Together, the two used a Taser on Ambler at least four times as he screamed that he couldn’t breathe and repeatedly told them he had congestive heart failure.

Both deputies had previously been turned down by the Williamson County sheriff’s office when they applied for jobs. But they were later hired under Chody. In a statement, attorneys representing Johnson and Camden said that their clients were hired “when they were both the most suitable applicant.”

Sheriff’s officials redacted information about when and why they originally did not hire Johnson.

Other records show that Johnson had a blemished record for driving with an invalid license two decades earlier. He also was the subject of an Austin Police Department assault report in 2005, although he was not arrested because investigators deemed the fight “mutual combat.” 

While working in Bastrop County, Johnson received a two-day suspension for crashing his patrol car in September 2016.

After joining Chody’s department, Johnson became a rising star. As part of “Live PD” promotional efforts, he was interviewed by podcasters about his life in law enforcement and was a frequent face on Chody’s social media.

Last July, almost three months after Ambler’s death, Chody called into a live chat, promoting Johnson and the show.

“You’re doing an extremely good job and representing Wilco very well,” Chody said. “I just wanted to say hello and how proud I am not only of J.J., but of all the troops that are on ‘Live PD.’ ”

Before his time in Bastrop County, Camden worked in the Ingleside Police Department near Corpus Christi, where his personnel file included a finding of dishonesty with a six-day unpaid suspension over a dispute about his arrival time for work.

In a five-month period in late 2018, he was admonished three times at the Bastrop County sheriff’s office and ordered to classes on search-and-seizure laws.

When he applied to join Williamson County, two references noted Camden had an “aggressive” patrol posture, records show.

How Texas regulates officers

Texas law enforcement agencies are required to take several steps to check officers’ backgrounds before hiring them. The agency encourages thoroughness and heeding warning signs, but it gives police and sheriff’s departments wide latitude in employment decisions.

But law enforcement agencies are not required to review applicants’ entire personnel files from their previous employers. 

In June, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement finished an investigation involving the Williamson County sheriff’s office. The commission found no violations but noted that it had uncovered worrisome practices.

As part of the investigation, the state agency interviewed three former background investigators.

Lt. Derrick Dutton reported that “ex-APD officers were hired despite concerns they were uncovering.” 

When Chody took office, Dutton said, they stopped performing exhaustive background checks on prospective employees.

Sgt. Mark Davis told the commission that “it wasn’t an order not to investigate as much as it was that the decision-makers didn’t care.”

In an interview with the Statesman, Davis said he left the department because he was troubled by Chody’s hiring process.

“It was atrocious,” Davis said.

Sheriff’s fight with county leaders 

Klier, the former president of the Williamson County Deputies Association, and others said Chody’s desire to satisfy “Live PD” producers and bring on officers willing to amp up ordinary police work to make good TV created a combustible mix.

Thoughtful policing was replaced by overly aggressive tactics, they say, as deputies felt compelled to please Chody.

“Glad we could make some good TV for the boss man,” Deputy Jarred Dalton Tweeted in May 2019, soon before a “Live PD” taping. In another post, he wrote, “Gonna try to get some good stuff stirred up for y'all tonight.”

County commissioners expressed concern about the show and worried how it might affect policing.

But the sheriff doubled-down.

After commissioners in August 2019 canceled a contract with the show, Chody struck his own deal with “Live PD” producers. County commissioners then sued Chody, claiming that he did so outside of his legal authority and that he was “more concerned about show business than sheriff business.”

More lawsuits are on the horizon, stemming from two “Live PD” encounters. Ambler’s family plans to file a wrongful death and excessive force case in federal court. Watsky's father, Gary Watsky, is also considering a lawsuit to recover damages for the raid at his home, among other claims.

The department said in its statement that such lawsuits are “always possible when trying to address crime and criminals.”

As recently as June, Chody’s chief deputy praised the “professionalism” of Johnson and Camden in the Ambler case.

Johnson and Camden are under investigation by Travis County prosecutors for their use of force against Ambler, and the case will go before a grand jury next year. A separate grand jury in Williamson County is trying to determine if “Live PD” footage of the encounter was illegally destroyed.

Klier said he is concerned that Chody’s hiring practices are another example of how the lights of “Live PD” have overshadowed good policing.

“What does right look like for the Williamson County sheriff’s office? What is our moral barometer? I will tell you – after being here for six years – I can tell you it is going the wrong way,” he said.