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If reality cop shows ever make a comeback, they’ll have to do so outside of Texas.
The state’s governor, Greg Abbott, on Wednesday signed a bill that would bar law enforcement agencies in Texas from contracting with TV producers to film officers on duty “for the purpose of creating a reality television show” (the text of the bill is here). The bill, introduced by Democratic state Rep. James Talarico, is named Javier Ambler’s Law for an Austin man who died in police custody after a crew from A&E’s Live PD filmed his arrest.
The bill — the first statewide ban on reality crews riding along with cops — had broad bipartisan support in the state legislature, passing the House and Senate by wide margins.
Ambler died in March 2019 after sheriff’s deputies from Williamson County, Texas, pursued him over a traffic violation. After stopping him in Austin (which lies in neighboring Travis County), the deputies used tasers on him multiple times despite Ambler’s pleas (as seen in police camera footage) that he was having trouble breathing and had congestive heart failure.
A Live PD camera crew was following the officers and filming for the show, though it wasn’t transmitting live. The series never ran the footage from that night, as A&E had a policy against showing any fatalities on the show, whether or not they involved officers.
“Policing is not entertainment,” said Talarico, whose district is in Williamson County. “I’m proud that Democrats and Republicans came together to pass this bill to protect our citizens and help restore faith in law enforcement.”
Live PD, at the time A&E’s highest-rated show, was canceled in June 2020 in the wake of revelations about the Ambler case — where the show’s producers were accused of destroying unused footage — and nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by then Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The long-running Cops also was canceled last year.
In March of this year, former Williamson County deputies J.J. Johnson and Zach Camden were indicted on charges of manslaughter in Ambler’s death. Former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody and the office’s former general counsel, Jason Nassour, have been indicted on evidence-tampering charges in the case.
A spokesperson for Talarico says the law will not affect filming of police work for documentaries or news programs and applies only to reality TV.
Meanwhile, Live PD producer Big Fish Entertainment has filed a lawsuit against the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, the Austin Police Department and several officers. The suit, filed in late March, claims that officers illegally seized cameras — including those mounted in the Williamson patrol cars — and other equipment on the night of Ambler’s death and prevented crewmembers from accessing it for more than an hour.
The crew got its gear back later that night, but per the Austin American-Statesman, the suit contends that “even a brief taking of First Amendment rights is unconstitutional.”
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