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Did “Live PD” Let Police Censor Footage?

Police asked the show to edit out officers using violence or bad language. The company says it had other reasons for not airing the footage.

Animation by Elan Kiderman/The Marshall Project

As police work goes, the call about a suspected shoplifter was mundane. The wrinkle? A crew for the popular A&E show “Live PD” was filming from inside the squad car dispatched to the scene.

Lights and sirens blare on the video footage as the Warwick, Rhode Island, police officer drives to the shopping strip. Soon, he finds the suspect: A man skateboarding out of a supermarket, pushing a full cart.

This article was published in partnership with The Daily Beast.

“I’m out with him,” the officer says. He revs the car’s engine. It lurches forward, swerving behind the man. Then there’s the ding of a door opening and a loud thump—the officer appears to whack the skateboarder with the open door of his cruiser.

But the show’s millions of viewers never saw the chase, filmed in 2018. A supervising officer—whom the show allowed to review the tape—asked producers to pull the plug on the scene before it aired, records show. In an email to show staffers, the supervisor explained that the officer’s actions violated the police department’s policy.

“The car vs. skateboard takedown is way outside of our policy and we would be opening up some scrutiny issues with the city and our insurance company if they were to see this,” Capt. Ryan Sornberger wrote. “I get that it’s exciting to watch, but it’s a little to[o] ‘wild west’ for how we do things in this department.”

"Live PD" recorded a police officer seemingly hitting a suspected shoplifter with his car’s door during a chase. The Marshall Project blurred faces to protect people's identities and edited the video for length, but the sequence of scenes as the show had them is intact. “Live PD” did not air it.

The show’s producers never aired the scene.

It was not an isolated instance. The show’s production company and law enforcement agencies touted “Live PD” as a transparent look into policing in America. But behind the scenes, the show allowed agencies to ask to eliminate footage before and after the program aired, according to emails, video clips and records The Marshall Project obtained from law-enforcement agencies.

The scenes they asked “Live PD” to delete included deputies forcefully grabbing a woman named as a victim of domestic violence out of her Washington state home, and a Louisiana officer possibly calling a Black man “boy.” The program didn’t use parts or all of the video in these and several instances when officers didn’t approve, the records show.

The Marshall Project requested records from 47 agencies that participated in the show, and received documents from more than 20 of them, showing that officers were routinely allowed to review footage before it aired. Thirteen of those agencies asked the show not to broadcast certain encounters, according to the records.

“Live PD” has faced criticism for years, accused of exploiting vulnerable people in crisis—especially people of color. The Marshall Project’s findings suggest the unaired videos may also have helped shield possible police misconduct. Meanwhile, A&E announced last month that it was cancelling the show, as protesters nationwide decry police brutality and demand racial justice. (The Paramount network also canceled “COPS,” the original stalwart of police “reality” TV.)

Big Fish Entertainment, the company that produces “Live PD,” said it always retained final call on what aired and that the deleted scenes were cut for other reasons, such as time constraints or network standards—not because of the police departments’ objections.

“There are no incidents where production covered up for the police—and there is nothing to be gained by protecting anyone," the company said in a statement.

Despite the show’s name, the edited videos we saw had been taped for future use. The company said they represent a small portion of all the footage the show aired and the incidents highlighted by The Marshall Project are only a fraction of thousands of hours of video shot for nearly 300 episodes. According to their contracts with the show, police also had the ability to review the “live” videos, which are aired after only short delays. But those requests were made by phone, so they’re not captured in these emails.

A&E did not respond to a request for comment. The show’s host, Dan Abrams, declined to be interviewed. In the process of reporting this story, an employee of Abrams’ company made a donation to The Marshall Project. The donation was declined, since The Marshall Project does not accept contributions that could be perceived as seeking to influence our coverage. A spokesman for Abrams Media said the employee who tried to make the contribution was not aware this story was in progress.

After A&E announced “Live PD” was canceled, Abrams defended the show on Twitter, calling it “our continuing effort at transparency in policing.”

That argument rings hollow to Shawn Dick, one of two Texas district attorneys who fought to get footage “Live PD” filmed in 2019, when Javier Ambler was killed in an encounter with sheriff’s deputies near Austin. A&E said that footage was destroyed.

“It’s always sold as transparency, and it’s the furthest thing from transparent,” Dick said of the show. “Just be honest about it. It’s for entertainment. It is edited. It is carefully selected.”

“Live PD” launched in 2016 and rose to become one of A&E’s top-rated shows, frequently topping other cable programs in its Friday and Saturday night timeslots. Fans railed about the demise of “Live PD” online, signing petitions to save it or move it to a different network. The show’s producers have not said whether it might continue elsewhere.

Though "Live" was in its name, the show had at least a 10- to 25-minute delay between when footage was filmed and when it appeared “live” on TV, according to its contracts with law enforcement agencies. That delay let agencies review the footage, emails obtained by The Marshall Project show. Sprinkled throughout the show were clips filmed and edited days in advance. In these cases, Big Fish Entertainment sent the agency a clip, often asking for approval to air the footage.

In talking points sent to participating agencies, “Live PD” said it only edited out video that could reveal classified information, jeopardize a case or cause a security risk. Our review of public records shows those weren’t the only reasons departments cited in asking for video cuts.

Why didn’t viewers see the skateboarder chase in Warwick? Police Chief Rick Rathbun, in response to questions from The Marshall Project, said the captain “did not approve the clip for airing to ensure our cruiser did not strike the subject who was later arrested. The video footage was internally reviewed, which confirmed that the car did not hit the person fleeing the crime, and the arrest fell within policy.”

Rathbun did not explain the discrepancy between the department’s current position about the encounter and the wording of the email request.

Big Fish Entertainment said the clip was prepared for an episode of “Live PD” despite the objections of Warwick police, but the company did not air it because there were too many other videos to choose from that week.

Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, reviewed that scene and others deleted by the show and found them appalling. Smith once led the U.S. Department of Justice unit that investigated police departments for civil rights violations, including in Ferguson, Missouri, following the 2014 death of Michael Brown.

After watching the Rhode Island video, Smith said the officer appeared to use his car door to hit a skateboarder accused of shoplifting, which would be a violation of the man’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable force in his arrest. Courts have ruled that the force used by police officers must be proportional to the resistance, Smith said.

“Hitting someone with your car, including the car door, is very dangerous, potentially lethal force, but certainly a higher level of force than is necessary to capture a person running to avoid a shoplifting charge,” Smith said.

“Live PD” cameras were rolling in another incident the show never aired. The footage, recorded in Washington state in 2017, shows Spokane County sheriff’s deputies arriving at a house to arrest a man they say is suspected of domestic violence. A woman answers the door and asks to see a search warrant before deputies attempt to enter the house.

A deputy tells her they don’t have a warrant, but will obtain it. When she attempts to close the door, two deputies grab her by her arms and shoulders, pull her out of the house and place her in handcuffs, the video shows, while they wait for a judge to sign off on a search warrant. The video eventually shows deputies and a police dog busting into the house and re-emerging with a shirtless man in handcuffs. The video also reveals there was a 10-year-old girl inside.

"Live PD" edited footage of sheriff’s deputies responding to a domestic violence complaint, removing sections showing deputies interacting with the woman at the house. The Marshall Project blurred faces and bleeped names to protect people's identities and the clip has been has edited for length, but the sequence of scenes as the show had them is intact.

After reviewing the first version of the scene, a Spokane County undersheriff asked “Live PD” not to air it, citing “procedural issues with this video that we have addressed with our deputies,” records show. Producers tried to rework the scene, removing the parts where the woman appeared, including where deputies took her from the house. But the undersheriff still wasn’t satisfied. He wrote back to show staff: “There are still significant procedural issues with how we handled this incident, especially under Washington Law, that we would prefer not to show.”

That’s an understatement, Smith, the civil-rights expert, told The Marshall Project after reviewing footage of the entire encounter. “I have many serious concerns about this situation,” he said.

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He said the deputies may not have had legal grounds to detain the woman while waiting for a search warrant, and they may have put the arrestee and child unnecessarily in danger with the way they entered the house. “They got lucky,” Smith said. “But they should have used negotiations and time to get him to come out.”

He was also alarmed by how they treated a woman the deputies described as a victim of domestic violence.

“Instead of treating her like a victim, from the very first part of the encounter, she was treated with hostility,” Smith said.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Big Fish Entertainment said the encounter did not appear on the show because the company’s lawyers were concerned about the woman and child being identified—and not because the sheriff’s office asked not to air it.

Other “Live PD” videos that were edited after department requests involved instances in which agencies expressed concern about their officers possibly using racist or callous language.

In 2018, after a pursuit that shut down traffic on an interstate north of New Orleans, video recorded a White police officer possibly telling a Black man in cuffs: “You got half of I-10 shut down now, boy.”

"Live PD" footage of police officers responding to a Black man allegedly speeding in a vehicle recorded an officer possibly calling him "boy". The Marshall Project blurred faces and license plates and bleeped out a name to protect people's identities. The Marshall Project also edited the video for length, but the sequence of scenes as the show had them is intact. “Live PD” cut the word out when it aired the encounter.

After reviewing the footage, the Slidell Police Department spokesman Daniel Seuzeneau pointed the phrase out to the show’s staff in an email.

“Officer Peck says, ‘Now you got half of I-10 shutdown boy.’ At least I think he said boy? If we can take that out. I know someone will take that as racist,” Seuzeneau wrote.

“Live PD” aired the clip later that evening with the word cut.

Brad Peck, the police officer in question, did not respond to requests for comment.

In response to questions from The Marshall Project, Seuzeneau wrote that the officer did not say “boy.” Seuzeneau did not say what word he believes the officer used. The spokesman went on to say, “As far as the term ‘boy’ is concerned, we don’t dictate which words our society deems to be racist and offensive, as it seems to change daily.” He said Slidell officers undergo sensitivity training.

Big Fish Entertainment showed The Marshall Project an internal company email in which its staffers reviewing that footage debated whether the officer said “boy,” suggesting he might have said “boo” instead, as in the slang word for honey or baby.

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“Because there was some debate about what was actually said, and how offensive it might have been—we thought it best to drop it rather than assume it to be the bad interpretation,” the company said in a statement.

The findings from The Marshall Project come as the show faces a new wave of public criticism after A&E last month said that “Live PD” permanently destroyed footage of Javier Ambler’s death during his March 2019 arrest near Austin, Texas.

Days before the show was canceled, The Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV reported that “Live PD” was filming as Ambler, a Black man, died while being handcuffed, tasered and pushed into the ground by Williamson County sheriff’s deputies. The district attorneys for Williamson and neighboring Travis counties have launched a joint investigation into the death and possible evidence tampering by public employees who were in contact with “Live PD” personnel.

“This is evidence,” said Margaret Moore, the Travis County district attorney, referring to the “Live PD” video. “It’s just offensive to me that it would not have been preserved.”

Big Fish Entertainment said they preserved the footage three months longer than the show’s normal retention schedule, but law enforcement officials never asked for the video before the company erased it. The company said the show’s now-deleted footage didn’t capture anything different than police body cameras.

It’s unclear whether Williamson County sheriff deputies reviewed “Live PD” footage from the day of Ambler’s death. The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment, and its lawyer said he did not know if deputies watched the footage. Sheriff’s Office records obtained by The Marshall Project don’t discuss Ambler’s death, but they show “Live PD” regularly sent footage to deputies for their review in 2019. The Sheriff’s Office withheld a significant number of the emails we requested, however, claiming attorney-client privilege.

Javier Ambler’s mother, Maritza Ambler, said for more than a year her family knew nothing about how her son really died—or that his death had been filmed by a TV crew. She said she’s never watched “Live PD.”

“I don’t want to see people be treated that way,” she said.

While “Live PD” producers seemed willing to toss out footage that made police departments look bad, people who were recorded while encountering police said it was an uphill battle for them to get similar treatment.

The mother of a foster child in Rhode Island told The Marshall Project it took months to get “Live PD” to remove a clip featuring her and her daughter, who has developmental disabilities and ran from their house one day as the mother carried in shopping bags.

The mother, who asked that her name and her daughter’s name be withheld to protect the child’s privacy, said the “Live PD” crew ignored her request not to film them. The show broadcast the video, with their faces blurred. Still, the mother said she was recognized by coworkers, and fans of the show online criticized her parenting. She said she had to threaten to sue before the video was finally removed from all the show’s platforms.

Big Fish Entertainment said it quickly handled requests from people who had valid privacy concerns about appearing on the show. Emails obtained by The Marshall Project showed the foster mother’s case took months to fix.

The mother said she had no idea police were regularly allowed to request edits for things they didn’t want shown on “Live PD.” So why were they allowed to show the worst day of her life, without her permission, she wondered?

“I felt I called the police for help and I was exploited.”

Sachi McClendon is a freelance reporter based in Austin, Texas.

This story was updated to include a comment from Abrams Media.

Cary Aspinwall Twitter Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, she was an investigative reporter at The Dallas Morning News, where she reported on the impact of pre-trial incarceration and money bail on women and children in Texas and deaths in police custody involving excessive force and medical negligence. She won the Gerald Loeb Award for reporting on a Texas company's history of deadly natural gas explosions and is a past Pulitzer finalist for her work exposing flaws in Oklahoma's execution process.