American-Statesman investigative reporter Tony Plohetski was named Thursday one of three finalists for the prestigious Michael Kelly Award honoring "fearless pursuit and expression of truth" in memory of Kelly, the first U.S. journalist killed covering the war in Iraq in 2003.
Plohetski was recognized for his 2020 investigation of the Williamson County sheriff's office and the death of Javier Ambler II, which judges said "represents an indispensable contribution to the growing body of reporting on police brutality."
In June 2020, after months of investigative reporting, Plohetski revealed that deputies chased Ambler, a 40-year-old father, in a pursuit that started because he failed to dim his headlights - all while the reality TV show "Live PD" filmed.
During the next several months, Plohetski uncovered other questionable use-of-force encounters and a culture that appeared to glorify violence often for the sake of the TV show.
His reporting helped spark a criminal investigation that led to the indictment of former Sheriff Robert Chody for what prosecutors allege was his role in the destruction of "Live PD" footage of Ambler's death. It also led to a reexamination of circumstances of what happened to Ambler. Two deputies have since been charged with manslaughter.
The reporting also prompted Texas lawmakers to ban reality TV shows from partnering with law enforcement.
"Tony represents the best of the Michael Kelly Award," Statesman editor Manny Garcia said. "His reporting against adversity exemplifies courageous journalism and so embodies what Michael Kelly stood for."
The honor is just the latest the work has received. The Statesman's online coverage earned a national Edward R. Murrow Award last fall, and Plohetski received a National Headliner Award for investigative reporting and the Hillman broadcast prize for his on-air coverage for KVUE-TV, for which Plohetski jointly reported the series. He was the inaugural recipient of the Dan Rather Medal for News & Guts for journalistic courage administered through the school for journalism and media at the University of Texas.
The Michael Kelly Award is given through the Atlantic, where Kelly was editor.
The winner of this year's prize, Nadja Drost of The California Sunday Magazine, walked 66 miles for seven days across the Darien Gap - dense jungle on the Colombia-Panama border - to document dangerous journeys by migrants to the U.S.
Other finalists were Associated Press journalists who exposed sexual abuse, forced labor and toxic exposures in palm oil production in Southeast Asia; and journalists from BuzzFeed News who investigated long-term detention and incarceration in China.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Award given for "fearless pursuit and expression of truth."