“I can’t breathe” isn’t just a hashtag or a rallying cry, they are actual words said by actual people before they died in police custody. The phrase became a slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 after the death of Eric Garner and that energy was reignited after the recent death of George Floyd. Since Floyd’s death, at least two past cases where black men have said those words before dying while being detained by police have been uncovered. One of those cases is that of Manuel Ellis—whose story The Root reported on last week—and the other is that of 40-year-old Javier Ambler, who died in police custody in Austin, Texas in 2019.
From USA Today:
Javier Ambler was driving home from a friendly poker game in the early hours of March 28, 2019, when a Williamson County sheriff’s deputy noticed that he failed to dim the headlights of his SUV to oncoming traffic.
Twenty-eight minutes later, the black father of two sons lay dying on a north Austin street after deputies held him down and used Tasers on him four times while a crew from A&E’s reality show “Live PD” filmed.
Ambler, a 40-year-old former postal worker, repeatedly pleaded for mercy, telling deputies he had congestive heart failure and couldn’t breathe. He cried, “Save me,” before deputies deployed a final shock.
Ambler’s death didn’t receive any major media coverage and there were no subsequent protests. According to USA Today, local media outlets had been trying for months to pry information out of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office on Ambler’s case. Now, in light of recent events, Williamson County police have released documents and video footage that provide a closer look at what happened to Ambler. The newly released information has also put a spotlight on Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody and his department’s involvement with the Live PD reality show.
“It is of very serious concern to any of us who are in law enforcement that the decision to engage in that chase was driven by more of a need to provide entertainment than to keep Williamson County citizens safe,” Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said, USA Today reports.
Moore’s civil rights division has been investigating Ambler’s death for well over a year and she told reporters her office plans to bring his case before a grand jury. Investigators have claimed that Chody and producers for Live PD have repeatedly obstructed their attempts to get information on Ambler’s arrest, including footage from the chase. On May 18, the Texas attorney general’s office ordered Chody’s office to release the requested information.
The footage shows Deputy J.J. Johnson, who appeared regularly on Live PD, attempting to pull Ambler over for having his brights on. Ambler didn’t stop and a 22-minute chase ensued during which Johnson narrated what was going on for the film crew riding along with him. The chase ended after Ambler crashed. Johnson, who had no backup at the time, drew his gun demanding him to get out of the car.
From USA Today:
“Get down!” Johnson repeated several times.
When Ambler appeared to turn toward his car door, Johnson used his Taser, according to an internal investigative report the Statesman obtained under the Texas Public Information Act. Ambler fell on one knee, rolled onto his back and stomach and acted as though he was trying to stand.
“You’ll get it again,” Johnson shouted.
Backup Deputy Zachary Camden, who is white and was also accompanied by a “Live PD” crew, arrived and shoved his Taser into Ambler’s upper back “in a drive-stun motion.”
Deputies yell at Ambler to lay on his stomach and put his hands behind his back. One presses a Taser into his upper back.
“I have congestive heart failure,” Ambler says. “I have congestive heart failure. I can’t breathe.”
As the deputies scream orders, Ambler, between gasps, tells them he’s trying to follow their commands. Another four times he tells the deputies he can’t breathe.
“I am not resisting,” Ambler cries. “Sir, I can’t breathe. … Please. … Please.”
The deputies, who are on top of Ambler, continue yelling at him to put his arms behind his back.
“Save me,” Ambler cries.
“Do what we’re asking you to do!” a deputy yells.
“I can’t,” Ambler says, the last words the video captures from him just before one of the deputies deploys his Taser a fourth and final time at 1:47 a.m.
Ambler’s hands go limp, and the deputies place handcuffs around his wrists.
Moments later, they realized he was unconscious and his pulse had stopped.
Deputies performed CPR for four minutes until medics arrived.
Medics and doctors at Dell Seton Medical Center worked for 50 minutes to keep Ambler alive. He was pronounced dead at 2:37 a.m.
Ambler’s death was ruled a homicide but the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department internal affairs investigators concluded in a report that the deputies had not violated any pursuit or use-of-force policies. The report doesn’t indicate that any of them faced any disciplinary action related to the incident.
Because Ambler isn’t alive to tell his side of the story, we’ll never know why he ran but we do know he died afraid and after repeatedly crying out to police those now infamous words: “I can’t breathe.”