How a Texas sheriff’s department used a SWAT team to make ‘Live PD’ more dramatic – USA TODAY

Asher Watsky acts out what happened to him when he was arrested in his home as his father Gary recounts the day his front door was busted down by Williamson County SWAT team. Asher Watsky is a young man who was arrested and charged last year after a fight with his roommate. He had gone to court for all of his hearings. He went for a hearing May 2, 2019, but was not arrested on an outstanding warrant.

AUSTIN – Williamson County sheriff’s SWAT officers in high-tech helmets and military fatigues leapt from an armored vehicle and rushed toward the limestone cottage.

The first deputy on the front porch swung a battering ram into the wood-framed front door. A second ignited a smoke bomb on the front steps as five SWAT officers screaming “Arrest warrant! Arrest warrant!” moved inside, trailed by a German shepherd in a bulletproof vest.

Within minutes, Asher Watsky was slammed against a wall as cameras strategically positioned to capture a high-drama arrest panned the scene for the reality TV show “Live PD.”

The highly weaponized arrest came just 3½ hours after Watsky sat peacefully in a courtroom where deputies had ample opportunity to take him into custody without fanfare.

Watsky, whose alleged offense was ending an argument by hitting his roommate with a shovel, had strolled in and out of the Williamson County Justice Complex for a routine pretrial appearance that afternoon as he had done for months. He had passed through metal detectors under the watchful eyes of armed sheriff’s deputies.

Inside the courtroom on a charge related to his roommate altercation, Watsky was a few feet from armed bailiffs who work for Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody.

Both Watksy’s lawyer and the county’s chief prosecutor say sheriff’s officials never intended to arrest Watsky quietly that day. In fact, the warrant executed in his home-invasion takedown on May 2, 2019, had been issued 15 days earlier. But when it was entered into a local law enforcement database run by the sheriff’s office, someone had intentionally coded it as “inactive” — a command that made it invisible to anyone authorized to access the database.

Without a way to see that Watsky had a pending warrant, no one outside a close circle of sheriff’s department officials could have followed the normal procedure of arresting Watsky on the spot. Watsky says he had no idea he was wanted until deputies burst into his father’s house and dragged him out in handcuffs that night.

Watsky, his attorney and others say they are left with the troubling suspicion that his high-risk takedown was staged for TV.

“There is no doubt about it,” said Gary Watsky, a retired financial adviser who was horrified watching the arrest of his only child.

The firepower brought to Watsky’s arrest is the latest in a recent string of incidents deepening concerns about Williamson County law enforcement. Other area officials, legal experts and civil rights advocates are increasingly worried that Chody’s department resorts to excessive force and overly aggressive tactics in what should be routine and non-violent police work — sometimes to create dramatic television.

Three former investigators told the American-Statesman that, as recently as six months ago, sheriff’s department leaders pressured them to draw up arrest warrants on suspects for “Live PD” production, even though they were still working the cases.

“They would come back there quite often and say they wanted a juicy warrant, something that would look good on TV,” said former Williamson County Detective Casey Daley, who left the agency in November after eight years to become a full-time mother.

Chody and the department did not respond to interview requests.

Several deputies — and the sheriff’s department as a whole — have been under mounting scrutiny since the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV last month reported details of the death of Javier Ambler. Ambler, a black 40-year-old father, was chased for 22 minutes by two deputies with “Live PD” crews in their patrol cars after he failed to dim his headlights and fled. After Ambler crashed his car, deputies shocked him four times with a Taser as he screamed that he had a heart condition, couldn’t breathe and cried “save me.”

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Prosecutors and an outside law enforcement agency are investigating at least five other use-of-force cases. Those include an incident broadcast live on the reality show as deputies kicked, Tased and punched Ramsey Mitchell after he tried to run away.

In Watsky’s case, law enforcement experts say, the sheriff’s department ignored law enforcement best practices when deputies inexplicably bypassed a chance to take him into custody in the more controlled, safer environment of the county courthouse.

“Whenever you enter someone’s home, their home is their castle,” said Jeff Noble, a national law enforcement consultant and former deputy chief in Irvine, California. “There could be children inside. There could be uninvolved adults inside. Bad things happen when we run inside a home we aren’t familiar with with guns.”

Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick told the Statesman that he discussed the Watsky case with sheriff’s officials last summer, and they “acknowledged they removed the warrant from the system” before arresting him in the televised takedown.

Dick said the officials claimed that Watsky was being arrested on a violent felony warrant and was considered “a high-risk suspect” based on an internal sheriff’s department risk assessment matrix. They insisted that deploying the SWAT team to arrest him in a quiet, starter-home neighborhood of Cedar Park was not only prudent but necessary.

“I said, ‘Threat matrix aside, it appears to me the safest and most efficient way to arrest someone is in the courtroom,’ ” Dick recalled.

‘That is the way it is’

Worries about the sheriff’s relationship with “Live PD” have swirled among some Williamson County leaders for more than a year.

Those worries surfaced May 21, 2019, when county commissioners debated whether the county would continue a contract with the highly rated cable show.

Commissioner Valerie Covey grilled Chody, questioning whether his deputies were “delaying warrants and other issues that come about so that the camera can film it,” she said. “I’m just asking in general, ’Do we delay, do we do anything different in our process?”

Chody responded: “No, not that I am aware of, no.

Commissioners voted to terminate the show’s contract three months later. Chody soon drafted his own agreement, allowing “Live PD” to resume filming. That led commissioners to sue the sheriff.

In June, “Live PD” ended production two days after the Statesman’s report on Ambler’s death and amid national protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

The three former sheriff’s employees said they were deeply troubled by demands to get arrest warrants in time for “Live PD” production. All said they believed the requests were unethical. They also feared the imperative to get good TV storylines and images for the reality cameras harmed criminal investigations.

Gil Unger, who worked his last of nine years in the department’s criminal investigations division before resigning last fall, said that, in several instances, he wanted to pursue more evidence before making an arrest.

Unger recalled two cases when he had not yet contacted alleged perpetrators to check their alibis or heard their accounts of what happened, possibly ruling them out as suspects or taking an investigation in a new direction. He said he no longer remembers the names of those defendants and hasn’t followed their cases.

“I didn’t like it at all,” Unger said. “I let my supervisors know, and I think the response was, ‘I know dude. That is the way it is.’”

Until the reality TV show began working with the sheriff, Daley said, she and other detectives routinely got suspects to surrender at the Williamson County Jail. In other instances, she said, she and another detective would go arrest the target of an investigation themselves — a practice she said supervisors discouraged after the TV show came to town. Though the supervisors said they didn’t think that was safe, Daley said, ’“we knew it wasn’t for our safety.”

Mike Klier, who served as president of the Williamson County Deputies Association and worked in the special victims unit for two years, said he and his colleagues referred to their supervisors as “shopping for Live PD” when the show was set to film.

Klier, who was fired in June after supervisors claimed he was untruthful about whether he received a directive relating to evidence in a case, recalled a child sex abuse case in which there was little evidence other than the word of a young accuser. Klier said in that case, a colleague was having ongoing conversations with a suspect, trying to build a rapport he hoped would lead to a confession, when supervisors ordered him to move forward with an arrest. The suspect refused to cooperate once he was in jail, Klier said.

“You work really hard on these cases, and you are trying to make sure everything is perfect for them,” Klier said. “It puts your entire investigation at risk, not only for you but justice for the victim.”

Is there a safer way?

Nationally, military-style police raids have faced harsh criticism.

Fearing for the safety of officers and the public, many police agencies now turn to such tactics only when other efforts to detain a suspect failed.

Much of the controversy has focused on what police call “no-knock” search warrants. The aggressive, surprise actions are authorized when investigators believe that announcing themselves before entering a home for a court-authorized search might give suspects too much time to destroy evidence and violently resist.

Critics say police too often misuse the tactic with thin evidence to justify searches, and the raids often fail to produce prosecutable violations.

The March death of Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Kentucky, police during a no-knock drug raid sparked national outrage. In that case, drug investigators raided the house in search of Taylor’s ex-boyfriend. Walker’s current boyfriend believed the officers were intruders and opened fire.

The officers shot back, killing Taylor. Police found no drugs.

The Houston Police Department is grappling with fallout from a botched January 2019 raid. Officers burst into a home to search for black-tar heroin, and gunfire erupted, killing two middle-aged homeowners and their dog and injuring four officers. Investigators say they later determined the lead investigator lied and faked evidence to justify the raid. He now faces murder charges, and five other officers face related charges for civil rights violations, falsifying evidence and trying to covering up their actions.

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Experts say forcible entries to arrest suspects already charged with crimes provoke less controversy because officers have provided a judge with evidence to support the charge, often a violent felony.

Whether police are serving a search warrant or arresting a suspect, both operations generally rely on the same tactics and tools. They also carry similar risks. Experts say the inherent danger of surprising a homeowner has increasingly made officers balance the need to arrest a suspect with keeping themselves and the public safe.

Agencies generally consider multiple factors: Do suspects have military or law enforcement experience? Are they suspected of having weapon stockpiles? Have they previously threatened police? Is there a safer way?

Noble said most departments first try less aggressive means: Undercover officers often conduct surveillance and nab a suspect arriving or leaving home or work. They may follow the suspect and make a traffic stop. They may do a “surround and call out,” ringing the perimeter of a house and using a megaphone to order the suspect to come out and surrender.

Texas agencies are not required to report how often officers breach a home. Williamson County has not answered requests for such data.

Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler said his deputies “hardly ever” serve no-knock arrest warrants.

“Going into houses like that can be pretty dangerous,” he said.

Assistant Austin Police Chief Joe Chacon said officers often coordinate with the U.S. Marshal’s Service and try to find less dangerous ways to arrest suspects.

“We always look for situations where we can place our officers, the public and the person we need to arrest in the lowest risk,” Chacon said. “We generally like to avoid going into a house if it is at all possible.”

Gary Watsky and his son Asher poses at their home. Asher Watsky recounts the day his front door was busted down by Williamson County SWAT team. Asher Watsky is a young man who was arrested and charged last year after a fight with his roommate. He had gone to court for all of his hearings. He went for a hearing May 2, 2019, but was not arrested on an outstanding warrant.

‘Anything they asked, I was willing to do’

The Watskys moved into their four-bedroom home seven years ago.

By then, Asher Watsky had finished his freshman year at Westwood High School before transferring to a Montana boarding school.

He enrolled in college in Arizona but came home after his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Watsky took orders at a couple of fast-food spots, got an apartment with a roommate a few miles from his parents’ home and helped tend to his mother.

Along the way, police arrested him for misdemeanor marijuana possession in 2015, a charge later dismissed.

Watsky’s mother died in August 2018. Less than two weeks later, court records show he and his roommate had two violent arguments.

Police arrested Watsky after the roommate told detectives they got into a fight on Sept. 9 over a stick of deodorant. The roommate told police the fight left him with bruises to his chest, neck and a busted lip.

The roommate also reported that Watsky had assaulted him days earlier.

On his lawyer’s advice, Watsky declined to discuss what happened with the Statesman. He still faces related charges.

Within days of the September altercation, he was arrested on a family violence charge and was released on bond.

Over the next eight months, Watsky reported to court once a month and followed the conditions of his pretrial release.

“Anything they asked, I was willing to do,” he said. “Go to court about once a month and make sure I am there. Go to therapy sessions. Passing drug tests. Just doing my best.”

He and his father went to the Williamson County Courthouse May 2, 2019, for a routine 1:30 p.m. court hearing. Watsky’s lawyer, Brad Vinson, was in trial on another case upstairs but arranged for Watksy to see the judge without him.

Watsky went into a first-floor courtroom, signed a form and left the courthouse with his father around 3:30 p.m. They stopped at Home Depot and a barbershop for haircuts on the way home.

But unbeknownst to Watsky or Vinson, a new arrest warrant had been issued in the case a month earlier when a grand jury returned two indictments charging Watsky with family violence and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The second indictment alleged Watsky had used a shovel to assault the roommate five days before the Sept. 9 incident.

The indictment generated the new arrest warrant. Such warrants are routed to Chody’s staff, who are responsible for entering them into law enforcement databases and carrying out arrests when possible.

Gary Watsky displays a door as he recounts the day his front door was busted down by Williamson County SWAT team. Asher Watsky is a young man who was arrested and charged last year after a fight with his roommate. He had gone to court for all of his hearings. He went for a hearing May 2, 2019, but was not arrested on an outstanding warrant.

‘A very dangerous subject’

The night of Watsky’s televised arrest, “Live PD” cameras cut to Williamson County sheriff’s Detective Mark Luera bouncing on the back of the armored vehicle as it rumbled east along Discovery Drive.

Luera deadpanned for the camera about Watsky’s dangerousness. Nothing the detective told the TV show is supported by court documents or publicly available law enforcement records.

“He does have an extensive history for narcotics use. He, uh, obviously, he’s got a background of violence. So, uh, they, uh, requested that we come out and serve this warrant on him,” Luera explained.

“He was outside prior to, smoking what we’re gonna — we are going to say were narcotics — because that’s heavy use,” Luera added as the camera panned behind to show a convoy of black police vehicles trailed by an ambulance.

“Once again, a very dangerous subject, because of his history and his narcotics use., We just don’t know what, ah, what he’s going to do at this point,” Luera continued for the camera. “He was outside smoking something. Like I said, we’re gonna go ahead and think that he was outside smoking something illegal.”

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“Nice and easy, nice and easy!” the detective called to a driver. “That’s his silver car right there! Nice and easy!”

Inside the home, the Watskys had just placed an online order for Chinese food. Asher Watsky was in the bathroom and heard a crash. He thought his father had fallen.

“I ran out, and couldn’t even get halfway out of the bathroom, and there were just a bunch of military guys, barking dogs,” he said. “It freaked me out really bad.”

Gary Watsky was in a middle room of the house. He recalled barely having time to look up before “every room in the house was covered with people in assault gear.”

He heard his son yelling: “Dad! Dad! Dad!′ And they were telling him to just be quiet.”

“I was telling him, ‘Look, whatever they tell you to do, just do what they want,’” he said.

Before deputies ordered him to be quiet, Watsky told his son, “‘Stay calm. Whatever they ask, just do it.’”

The final “Live PD” footage before the show cut back to its New York studio captured an officer instructing others to march Asher Watsky into the front room so he could be patted down on camera. “Alright bring him out here. Hold him right here,” someone called before an officer moved Watsky to a living room wall.

Someone turned on lights in the room as Watsky was positioned a few feet from the camera. In knee-length blue basketball shorts and a black T-shirt, hands cuffed behind his back, Watsky looked bewildered in the final shot.

Noble, who reviewed the video for the Statesman, said deputies “appeared to be avoiding basic tactics” during Watsky’s arrest. Given the severity of the allegations against Watsky, he said, “that is not the type of situation to take lightly, but at the same it is not the type of situation I would expect a SWAT team to enter a home to make an arrest.”

The morning after the arrest, Watsky’s defense lawyer went to state District Judge Donna King, livid. The lawyer recalled the judge assuring him that no one on her staff saw that Watsky had a new arrest warrant in the law enforcement database. That raised his suspicion that his client had been targeted for a TV takedown.

King said she could not comment on the case because it is still pending in her court.

Gary Watsky said the raid left his home with thousands of dollars in damage. A permanent charred spot on the front porch left by a smoke bomb serves as a reminder of what he believes was law enforcement gone awry.

“I was appalled, and I felt violated,” Gary Watsky said. “This is not America. Most people don’t deserve to be treated this way, no matter what.”

Follow Tony Plohetski on Twitter: @tplohetski

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/07/24/texas-sheriffs-department-made-live-pd-more-dramatic/5498349002/