Williamson County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office leaders rewarded deputies who used force on the job with steakhouse gift cards, according to two former employees, one of whom made the admission to Texas Rangers investigating the agency’s aggressive tactics.
Among the deputies who received gift cards to places such as Logan’s Roadhouse were J.J. Johnson and Zach Camden, the officers involved in the March 2019 death of Javier Ambler. The Black 40-year-old father was Tased four times as he shouted that he had a heart condition and could not breathe.
In a recorded interview with Texas Rangers, former Deputy Christopher Pisa said Cmdr. Steve Deaton awarded deputies he considered “WilCo badass.”
“They had the intention that we were all ‘WilCo badass’ and if you went out there and did your job, and you had to use force on somebody and he agreed with it, then you would get a gift card,” Pisa said in an audio recording obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.
Former Sgt. Troy Brogden, who resigned from the department last year, corroborated Pisa’s claim and told the Statesman that Deaton gave the cards “for what he considered good uses of force.”
Brogden worked for the agency for 20 years, including as a supervisor overseeing major cases in the criminal investigations division, before resigning last fall.
“He would talk about it in groups, including supervisors meetings and classes,” Brogden said. “I was like, ‘What the hell?’”
The revelation that top supervisors allegedly rewarded use of force provides a stunning insight into the suburban Austin department that seems to encourage violence, at least two law-enforcement experts said.
“That makes no sense to me at all,” said Jeff Noble, a retired deputy chief with the Irvine, Calif., police department and a national policing expert. “The incentive is, ‘Let’s go out and use more force so we can get more gift cards.’ The fear is that you are incentivizing bad behavior.”
The agency’s alleged system of rewarding force is the latest in a string of questionable practices reported by the American-Statesman in recent months. The department has also hired multiple deputies with troubled histories, engaged in high-speed vehicle pursuits for minor traffic violations and used aggressive tactics in several incidents that are now under investigation by the Texas Rangers and the Williamson County district attorney.
Increased questions about the agency’s use of force coincided with its participation in the reality show “Live PD” much of last year. Producers canceled “Live PD” in June, two days after the Statesman revealed details of Ambler’s death and that the show had destroyed footage of the incident.
Sheriff Robert Chody said in a statement: “Literally, the only use of cards I recall specifically was for a deputy who was able to recover some excellent fingerprints that ended up helping an investigation resulting in a warrant for that suspect and for a capture of a burglary suspect.”
“I have no idea what ‘good use of force’ means,” he wrote.
An audio recording
Texas Rangers and the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office are investigating at least five use-of-force incidents involving Williamson County deputies, including a violent arrest that was broadcast on “Live PD” and a deputy’s attack on a 20-year-old domestic violence victim.
One of the incidents under investigation is an April 2019 traffic stop Pisa conducted in which he used force on an African-American woman. Officials have not released details of the incident, which triggered a criminal investigation and prompted Pisa’s resignation.
Rangers interviewed Pisa six months after he resigned.
In an audio recording of that interview, provided to the Statesman by Pisa’s lawyer, the deputy said after the April incident he expected to receive a gift card from his superiors.
Pisa said the department’s practice of handing out gift cards in certain use-of-force cases was “common knowledge” and that Deaton was responsible for reviewing incidents and rewarding the cards.
“It was something everybody knew,” Pisa said. “He has even said it to people in meetings.”
“You are saying that, correct me if I am mistaken, that Cmdr. Deaton, that it is known that Cmdr. Deaton gives out gift cards to steakhouses or wherever to people for using force?” the Ranger asked again.
“A good use of force,” Pisa responded.
Pisa did not link the gift cards to Ambler’s case, and the Ranger did not ask for which incident he believed Johnson and Camden were rewarded.
Attorneys for the two deputies, who remain on the force, declined to comment about whether they received gift cards or for what purpose.
Deaton resigned in September 2019, months after social media posts of his surfaced with objectionable images showing dolls depicting actions, such as rape and kidnapping and the mutilation of a Black football player.
Gift card claims alarm experts
Two national law enforcement experts told the Statesman that they were alarmed by reports that the department rewarded force with gift cards.
Noble said if the cards weren’t a reward for using force, the department erred by not making clear the purpose or resolving any confusion.
“These officers didn’t create this myth on their own, so it is tied to something,” he said.
Timothy T. Williams, a retired senior detective supervisor for the Los Angeles Police Department, said that public service and a desire to help others should be adequate incentives for law enforcement.
“That is your mission,” he said. “You are not there as hunters. You are there to prevent crime. That is your incentive.”
It is unclear whether Rangers further investigated Pisa’s disclosure. It is also unclear who paid for the gift cards.
Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick, who is investigating the use-of-force cases and potential evidence tampering charges against the agency, declined to comment because of ongoing investigations.
Pisa’s attorney, Robert McCabe, said he was shocked by what his client told the Ranger during the interview.
“I think it absolutely happened, and I think it can easily be seen as ‘attaway to go,’ like rewarding using force,” McCabe said.