“The level of transparency ‘Live PD’ offers is unlike any other police series on television,” Cesareo, head of Big Fish Entertainment, the production company that created “Live PD,” said in a 2017 interview. “When an officer from a participating police department gets a call, we act as a natural extension of body-cams and dash-cams that officers are already using, and never know what will transpire.”
Chody’s efforts to get on TV didn’t go to waste . The county eventually approved a contract with Big Fish Entertainment, and Williamson County made its prime-time debut in November 2018.
Fans of “Live PD,” better known as #LivePDNation on Twitter, loved Williamson County. The sheriff interacted with fans online, tweeting back and forth, promoting trading cards, collectable poker chips, T-shirts and giveaway contests. A local theater hosted “watch parties” where fans could gather to watch their neighbors get busted.
But for some deputies who weren’t on camera, it became clear, even in those early days, that the pressure to make good TV was trumping not only their responsibility to the law, but to the citizens they served.
“The badge isn’t just a symbol of authority over the public,” said a former deputy who now works at a different agency and was granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media. “It’s a symbol of the trust the public has in us.”
“But when ‘Live PD’ came on the scene, it was the glitz, the glamour, the lights,” the former deputy added. “Law enforcement went right out the window.”
‘Complete and utter destruction’
When nearly a dozen deputies armed with long guns descended on the home of Sarah Fairchild in January 2019, “Live PD” cameras followed closely behind.
The clip that appeared on the show opened with Lt. Mark Luera riding in the back of a tactical vehicle. Dressed in military-style gear, he states the suspect, Fairchild’s 27-year-old son Blake, is wanted on an arrest warrant for the manufacture and delivery of methamphetamine.
What Luera didn’t say, however, is that deputies had been observing the house for hours in preparation to make the arrest, according to a deputy with knowledge of the incident.
Blake, who was visiting the house, had appeared several times in the driveway in full view of the deputies conducting surveillance, according to the deputy. But moments before deputies moved to arrest him, supervisors called them off. “Live PD” was on its way.
Arresting officers, the deputy said, went from “being able to take an isolated suspect outside in the driveway, with minimal force, to utilizing a SWAT team that has ‘Live PD’ on the scene.”
Blake and his girlfriend were eating freshly delivered pizza when they glanced at the video feed of the security camera on the front porch.
“We just see a big tank pull up,” said Blake’s girlfriend, Brandy Laib.
As Blake ran to open the front door, one deputy smashed it open with a battering ram. Another tossed a flash-bang grenade into the living room, filling the house with smoke. Laib threw herself over the family’s dog. Blake dropped to the floor and put his hands on his head.
“If they would have just knocked, Blake would have come to the door,” Laib said. “They did not have to go that extreme.”
In the back of the house, deputies hurled a second flash-bang grenade through a window, into the bedroom where Blake’s 6-year-old son slept.
Fairchild cried when she saw the shattered glass on her grandson’s bed and the black scorch marks on the carpet. It was only by some kind of grace, she said, that he hadn’t been home that afternoon.
“He would have died had he been here,” she said. “This was uncalled for. It was unbelievable.”
The explanation for Blake’s arrest on “Live PD” was also misleading, according to court records and Blake’s attorney. The arrest warrant stemmed not from a new drug manufacturing case, but from a judge revoking his bond after Blake admitted to using drugs and alcohol while on pretrial supervision.
“This was done,” Fairchild said, “totally, without a doubt, to make TV.”
Patricia Gutierrez, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said in a statement that the deputy’s account that an opportunity to make a peaceful arrest was abandoned in order to make TV is untrue.
Planned search and arrest warrants, Gutierrez said, are “executed using the safest timing and resources.” She did not elaborate.
A spokesperson for Big Fish Entertainment said that producers never pressured law enforcement to produce material.
“Live PD” turned policing on its head in Williamson County in other ways, too, according to interviews with nearly a dozen former and current deputies.
Once, detectives couldn’t use a license plate reading tool they needed to investigate a string of residential burglaries because it was being used on patrol with “Live PD,” the former deputy said. In one case, the former deputy said, detectives were told to postpone filing a search warrant for a week to coincide with filming, causing them to lose access to critical DNA evidence.
In addition to serving warrants for the cameras, deputies increasingly initiated dangerous, high-speed pursuits — like the one that led to Ambler’s death — according to reporting by The Austin American Statesmen and ABC affiliate KVUE, which have extensively covered the fallout over “Live PD” and the sheriff’s office.
“’Live PD’ was a distraction allowing complete and utter destruction of standardized best practices in law enforcement,” the former deputy said.
Dispatchers were told not to assign calls to deputies riding with “Live PD,” said one former Williamson County dispatcher, who spoke on anonymity because the dispatcher still works in the field. Those deputies were marked by a special call sign for emergency dispatchers, according to an internal memo seen by NBC News.
“This will let communications know that you are not to be assigned calls but can chose to respond to any that you would like to,” a former patrol commander, Steve Deaton, wrote in the memo.
One night, the dispatcher accidentally sent a “Live PD” deputy to check on a burglar alarm that had gone off. Chody, furious, called the dispatcher’s supervisor.
“He was upset that I had tried to dispatch one of his units to one of those calls,” the dispatcher remembered.
The interaction left the dispatcher troubled.
The show “added unnecessary stress to an already stressful environment,” the dispatcher said. “Most of us are there because we want to save lives. It became more or less that we were having to cater to and do our jobs around the show.”
“Live PD” had “little to no impact on routine operations of patrol deputies beyond what we normally see with other enforcement activities like DWI enforcement,” Gutierrez said in a statement.
The show was also at the center of a growing morale crisis. On one side were the “rock stars” of “Live PD,” some of whom had been hired or promoted despite troubling pasts.
On the other side were many of the county’s rank-and-file, who worried that they risked unceremonious demotions or firings if they did anything that seemed even mildly critical of “Live PD” or the sheriff.
It began to feel, Waldon said, like he and his fellow deputies had to “choose every day whether you’re going to follow your moral compass or stay employed.” (Waldon was fired in 2019 for allegedly falsifying time sheets, according to the Sheriff’s Office. He fought the charge and a judge reinstated his peace officer license.)
By contrast, several current and former deputies said that the officers featured on “Live PD” had wide latitude in how they conducted their law enforcement duties — and even received preferential treatment.
An internal investigation cleared both deputies involved in Ambler’s death — Johnson and Zach Camden— of wrongdoing. And then they were allowed to go right back on “Live PD.”
“The guys that were on ‘Live PD’ could do no wrong,” said the former deputy. “They knew they could do no wrong. That meant they could do anything.”
Three months after the Ambler incident, Johnson and Camden were involved in another controversial use of force encounter.
This one, once again, took place in front of “Live PD” cameras.
‘Most exciting episode of the season’
In June 2019, a local man named Ramsey Mitchell attempted to flee after deputies pulled him over for a minor traffic violation. Mitchell, who had a bottle of MDMA pills in his pocket and was facing an outstanding warrant linked to a drug possession charge, didn’t get far.
Johnson and Camden, along with three other deputies, tased, restrained and struck Mitchell until he lost consciousness and bled out onto the asphalt.
“I remember being held up and punched and the police saying, ‘He won’t go down,’” Mitchell said. “I just kept thinking, ‘If you would put me down, I’m not resisting.’ I remember being balled up and they were still kicking and stunning me.”
The incident became one of Williamson County’s most dramatic turns on “Live PD.” At the hospital, Mitchell said he overheard deputies talking as they followed his gurney on the way to get a CT scan.
Mitchell’s “ass whooping,” he heard one of the deputies say, was the “most exciting episode of the season.”
Mitchell lost two teeth, sustained a fractured jaw, and had surgery to reconstruct his eye socket.
He was charged with possession of a controlled substance and assault on a public servant, a charge later dropped by prosecutors. Mitchell pleaded guilty to the drug charge and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
An internal investigation determined the use of force was justified. But the Williamson County district attorney saw it another way.
It was a “brutal takedown,” Dick said.
Mitchell’s case is one of several excessive force incidents involving Williamson County deputies investigated by the Texas Rangers over the past year.
Attorneys representing Camden and Johnson said in a joint statement that “we have reason to believe the Texas Rangers looked into this use of force and did not identify any potential crimes committed by Johnson and Camden.”
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety declined to comment on the investigations.
When Ramsey Mitchell’s mother, Sandi Price, learned of Ambler’s death, she wondered why the same deputies had been put back in front of TV cameras, why “Live PD” was still in the county at all.
“Everybody that they stop and everybody they arrest and everybody they throw down in the street, those people aren’t actors,” Price said. “Those people belong to people.”
“A man died and they were allowed to go back on patrol, like it was business as usual,” she added. “And ya’ll continued to film. It’s mind-blowing to me as a human.”
Scott Lewis’s experience with “Live PD” and Williamson County deputies left lasting damage, too, after the show broadcast one of the worst moments of his life in January 2019.
Lewis, then 29, was a trading specialist and club lacrosse coach in Austin. He’d grown increasingly dependent on alcohol to cope with anxiety, one of the many aftereffects of a traumatic brain injury he sustained in a hit-and-run-accident. Weeks before he appeared on “Live PD,” he attended an inpatient rehabilitation program, a major step toward sobriety.
But that night, he relapsed and was arrested for driving while intoxicated.
“Live PD” opened on Lewis as he performed a field sobriety test, broadcasting his face — and his sweatshirt, emblazoned with the name of the lacrosse team he coached — into millions of American homes.
Lt. Grayson Kennedy cuffed him and twice pointed out that Lewis had urinated on himself. When Lewis asked for Kennedy’s full name, he grew angry and pinned Lewis against a patrol car.
In the show’s oeuvre of humiliation-as-entertainment, it was a classic segment, and pretty much the last of Lewis that fans saw that night. For him, though, it wasn’t the end of the story.