WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas — Williamson County officials are contending with more than a dozen ongoing lawsuits stemming from allegations involving former Sheriff Robert Chody and his deputies that are already causing insurance premiums to skyrocket.
The cases include a suit from the family of Javier Ambler II, who died in June 2019 after deputies chased him in a pursuit launched because he failed to dim his headlights. Others involve allegations of excessive force, including the "no-knock" raid of the home of Asher Watsky, who was wanted on a charge stemming from a fight with his roommate and who had sat peacefully in court hours earlier. Both seek unspecified amounts in damages.
“It comes out of my pocketbook and the pocketbook of Williamson County residents," County Judge Bill Gravell said.
According to the county auditor’s office, Williamson County holds two insurance policies relating to law enforcement conduct. One, through a division of Travelers Insurance, has a $2 million annual limit with a yearly premium of $179,339. The second, through a company called QBE, has a $3 million limit with a yearly premium of $320,939, providing the County a total of $5 million in coverage annually.
Last year, because of the growing number of cases against the County, both companies raised their rates. The annual premium for Travelers rose about $55,000, but QBE’s skyrocketed 332%.
"We have budgeted accordingly," Gravell said.
If the County exceeds the $5 million annual coverage, the County is responsible for any remaining money. Gravell said the County operates an emergency fund, but it is not yet known whether officials will be forced to tap into it.
The County has paid about $2.4 million in claims from Chody's tenure, which started in 2017 and continued through December 2020. They include the case of Daniel McCoy, who died because of what his family said was a lack of medical attention in the jail.
Several of the cases, including the Watsky and Ambler suits, involved the department's partnership with the defunct show "Live PD." The A&E network canceled the show two days after the KVUE Defenders and Austin American-Statesman revealed details of Ambler's death after fighting for months for information from the sheriff's office.
Former Sheriff Chody and an assistant county attorney have been charged with evidence tampering in the case. Their attorneys say they committed no crime.
Gerry Morris, who represents Chody, said he believes the number of claims against the County stems from the willingness of officials to settle the cases instead of litigating them in court.
Other suits involve allegations not related to "Live PD."
County Judge Gravell emphasized that in November, the County booted Chody from office and residents elected new Sheriff Mike Gleason, who Gravell says is putting reforms in place to prevent future litigation.
"I also want the residents to know too that they’ve elected a new sheriff. We have a new sheriff, and he is guiding the ship in such a way that I hope will reduce the litigation in the days ahead," Gravell said.
For plaintiffs, including Marquina Gilliam-Hicks, they say bringing a suit isn’t about money. For them, it is about making sure the County is held accountable for what happened to them – and changing its practices.
"Will justice be served with just my lawsuit? No," Gilliam-Hicks said. "I don’t feel that. Is it a start? Yes.”
Officials said there is no timeline for when the County expects to have these claims resolved. It could take months or years.
MORE WILLIAMSON COUNTY COVERAGE:
- Woman sues Williamson County deputy who allegedly tried to arrest her when she refused to give her name
- Former Williamson County deputy arrested after domestic violence victim thrown to ground
- Deputies indicted in Javier Ambler death on manslaughter charges
- 'Live PD' production company sues Williamson County Sheriff's Office, APD over footage seizure during Javier Ambler death