Police asked the show to edit out officers using violence or questionable language. The company says it had other reasons for not airing the footage.
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.
Im out with him, the officer says. He revs the cars engine. It lurches forward, swerving behind the man. Then theres the ding of a door opening and a loud thumpthe officer appears to whack the skateboarder with the open door of his cruiser.
But the shows millions of viewers never saw the chase, filmed in 2018. A supervising officerwhom the show allowed to review the tapeasked producers to pull the plug on the scene before it aired, records show. In an email to show staffers, the supervisor explained that the officers actions violated the police departments 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 its exciting to watch, but its a little to[o] wild west for how we do things in this department.
The shows producers never aired the scene.
It was not an isolated instance. The shows 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 didnt use parts or all of the video in these and several instances when officers didnt approve, the records show.
Live PD recorded a police officer seemingly hitting a suspected shoplifter with his cars door during a chase. The Marshall Project blurred faces to protect peoples 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 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 crisisespecially people of color. The Marshall Projects findings suggest the unaired videos may also have helped shield possible police misconduct. Meanwhile, A&E announced last month that it was canceling 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 standardsnot because of the police departments objections.
There are no incidents where production covered up for the policeand there is nothing to be gained by protecting anyone," the company said in a statement.
Despite the shows 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 aired after only short delays. But those requests were made by phone, so theyre not captured in these emails.
A&E did not respond to a request for comment. The shows 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.
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 sheriffs deputies near Austin. A&E said that footage was destroyed.
Its always sold as transparency, and its the furthest thing from transparent, Dick said of the show. Just be honest about it. Its for entertainment. It is edited. It is carefully selected.
Live PD launched in 2016 and rose to become one of A&Es top-rated shows, frequently topping other cable programs in its Friday and Saturday night time- slots. Fans railed about the demise of Live PD online, signing petitions to save it or move it to a different network. The shows 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.
Live PD edited footage of sheriffs 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 peoples identities and the clip has been edited for length, but the sequence of scenes as the show had them is intact.
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 werent the only reasons departments cited in asking for video cuts.
Why didnt 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 departments 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 mans 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 sheriffs 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 dont 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.
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 wasnt 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.
Thats 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.
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 Sheriffs Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Big Fish Entertainment said the encounter did not appear on the show because the companys lawyers were concerned about the woman and child being identifiedand not because the sheriffs 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 peoples 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 shows 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 dont 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.
Because there was some debate about what was actually said, and how offensive it might have beenwe thought it best to drop it rather than assume it to be the bad interpretation, the company said in a statement.
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 sheriffs 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. Its just offensive to me that it would not have been preserved.
Big Fish Entertainment said they preserved the footage three months longer than the shows normal retention schedule, but law enforcement officials never asked for the video before the company erased it. The company said the shows now- deleted footage didnt capture anything different than police body cameras.
Its unclear whether Williamson County sheriff deputies reviewed Live PD footage from the day of Amblers death. The Sheriffs Office declined to comment, and its lawyer said he did not know if deputies watched the footage. Sheriffs Office records obtained by The Marshall Project dont discuss Amblers death, but they show Live PD regularly sent footage to deputies for their review in 2019. The Sheriffs Office withheld a significant number of the emails we requested, however, claiming attorney-client privilege.
Javier Amblers mother, Maritza Ambler, said for more than a year her family knew nothing about how her son really diedor that his death had been filmed by a TV crew. She said shes never watched Live PD.
I dont 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 daughters name be withheld to protect the childs 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 shows 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 mothers case took months to fix.
The mother said she had no idea police were regularly allowed to request edits for things they didnt 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.