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Politics

They Give Us Crumbs so We Don’t Ask for More

A rotten system survives by doling out just enough "justice" to maintain itself.

The photo above — of a white man in a navy suit smiling while posing in front of a Texas sheriff’s department logo which contains the words “best of the best” and refers to the sheriff as a “peacemaker” — is a mugshot.

Or, really, it’s a booking photo that looks like a photo of a man accepting an award, or making a speech. It certainly doesn’t look like any of the booking photos I’ve seen taken by sheriff’s departments, of people’s close-cropped faces in poor lighting, in front of a blue backdrop. But it’s supposed to be a mugshot, nonetheless.

It’s the mugshot of the sheriff of Williamson County, TX, where I live. The sheriff, Robert Chody, was indicted Monday on a felony evidence tampering charge. The charge stems from what the Austin American-Statesman described as the “destruction of reality TV show footage” in the case of the death of Javier Ambler, a Black man who was killed by Williamson County sheriff’s deputies in March 2019, while a camera crew with the A&E show Live PD was filming.

I’ve previously written about Ambler’s death, but these details bear repeating: Ambler was chased by deputy J.J. Johnson, who was being filmed by Live PD at the time, for 22 minutes because he failed to dim his headlights. As deputies tased him four times, he was recorded by their body cameras saying he had congestive heart failure and that he couldn’t breathe.

Though Live PD’s contract with the county was ended in August 2019, Chody brought back the cameras earlier this year, in defiance of the county’s commissioners. Ambler’s family was in the dark for a year about the circumstances of his death in police custody, until local Austin publications obtained the body camera footage in June 2020. Within a week of the body camera footage going public, Live PD was canceled. But the show said it had destroyed its own footage of deputies chasing, arresting, and killing Ambler. It was this that led to the charges against Chody.

Prosecutors told the paper they couldn’t share information on “Chody’s role” in the destruction of the footage, but other details give a clearer idea. From the American-Statesman, emphasis mine:

The contract between Williamson County and “Live PD” producers in place at the time of Ambler’s death allowed the show to destroy unaired footage within 30 days unless a court order or other state or federal law required it to be retained.

“Live PD” host Dan Abrams said in television interviews and in a post on his website that sheriff’s officials initially asked producers to preserve the video. Two months after Ambler’s death, Chody told them the investigation was completed. At that point, Abrams said, producers destroyed the video.

When I read about Chody’s indictment, I was shocked. Surprised, really. Because justice is the exception to the rule. Because cops who kill often kill with impunity. Because the system is wont to spit in the faces of those who want to change it. Really, it felt like something to me that Chody was arrested. And I’m sure it felt that way because just the week before, none of the cops who killed Breonna Taylor were charged for her murder. When all you can identify is loss and an absence of justice, even the smallest developments feel grand and powerful.

I thought that what I was feeling was hope, really. That an arrested sheriff, booked in his own jail, was the turning of a new leaf. That it was a sign of better things to come in the context of Taylor’s case, but also for a metropolitan area whose protesters and bystanders were assaulted by Austin police months earlier, just days before Ambler’s case was made public.

But I struggle with hope. It is difficult to want to believe in something that consistently lets you down — in systems that tell you that you cannot be afforded the humanity that you deserve. It makes me wonder whether I am being realistic or cynical, whether my distrust is rooted in reality or fear. At the very least, my reluctance to immediately accept these glimmers of hope as glimmers at all has made me all the more scrutinizing. It reminds me of something I heard another journalist say a few weeks ago in an interview that a colleague of mine conducted: his job was to problematize solutions, not come up with them.

I struggled with Chody’s arrest too. Chody’s a lottery-made millionaire with a record of alleged police brutality himself who cares more about his own limelight than the safety of the people of his county he’s sworn to protect, and who is up for reelection as Williamson County sheriff. Ambler’s family went for more than a year without knowing the circumstances of his death. They were seeking justice in the form of prosecution of the deputies who killed him — justice that they, as victims of Ambler’s death, are allowed to seek however they see fit. And so, in this way, Chody’s arrest is good. It is a sign of progress, clerically at least, and some step on the path toward justice for Ambler’s family.

But Chody’s arrest, and even the arrest of the officers who killed Ambler, will not be enough. Chody could take a plea bargain, or go to trial, and be found guilty, and serve prison time, and be replaced by Mike Gleason, Chody’s Democratic challenger who is a retiree of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office and whose platform is reflective of the mental health and civil rights talking points you’d expect a liberal cop to have. The cops who killed Ambler could be charged and found guilty and serve prison time, too. All of that could happen and we’d be left with the same system that agreed to let Live PD ride along with sheriff’s deputies in the first place.

We’d be left with the same system in which a commander awarded steakhouse gift cards to deputies whose “good” uses of force made them a “WilCo badass.” With the same system that hired a cop from the Austin Police Department who expressed racism and sexism online decades after he killed the father of writer Montinique Monroe (Chody and a county judge also “liked” the deputy’s sexist and racist post, at that). With the same system that allowed Chody — who was alleged in a settled lawsuit from his early days at the Austin Police Department to have brutalized a 15-year-old boy so badly that it sent him into a seizure — to rise through the ranks of the sheriff’s department after his settlement, he became the sheriff himself.

Chody, as much as he doesn’t deserve to be reelected this November, isn’t the kingpin here. The systems that will continue to run and hum and arrest and punish people will remain in his absence. It’s so easy to feel like his indictment is an indication of justice because that is how these systems survive. They dole out some form of “justice” to maintain themselves — to prove to critics and reformers that these systems do work and that they can police themselves, despite us knowing, historically, that this is not true. It has never been true, but they do it anyway because this is how they appease our hunger, time and again.

They starve us and every now and again give us crumbs so that we don’t ask for more.

It’s embarrassing to believe in things. To have faith in something so unequivocally. But I guess I feel particularly silly thinking about my earnestness in the hours after that news broke, how much I wanted Chody’s arrest to feel like something — as if we “got him.” Because all anyone needs to do is take a look at that “mugshot” — glance at Chody’s beaming smile and soft posture and backdrop of the sheriff’s office badge logo, the photo prim and proper enough to print on his campaign mailers in the weeks before the election — to know that his arrest was never going to be enough.

Photo of Robert Chody via tplohetski/Twitter; Remix by Samantha Grasso