Kobe Bryant graphic pics leak: Calls for independent probe after LA cops mishandle case by destroying evidence
The sheriff's office has been accused of trying to suppress the information, with experts saying it "looks like a cover-up of misconduct"
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been accused of covering up evidence that its officers had taken graphic photos of the scene of Kobe Bryant's helicopter crash, with calls for an independent investigation now growing.
The scandal came to light after a public safety source with knowledge of the events saw the photos on the phone of another official in a setting that was not related to the investigation of the crash. He said the photos showed the scene and the victims' remains.
The sheriff's office received this complaint, which was reportedly about a young officer who was sharing the images at the California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, California, just three days after the tragedy, but tried to then have it suppressed. Sheriff Alex Villanueva eventually admitted earlier this week that as many as eight deputies allegedly took or shared graphic photos of the crash scene and that he had ordered the images to be deleted, something that might be illegal.
Patti Giggans, the chair of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, told the Los Angeles Times that the destruction of photos "looks like a cover-up of misconduct," before adding, "I'm hoping that's not the case."
Joseph Giacalone, who teaches police procedures at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, similarly said the department mishandled the complaint. He said that they should have preserved the photos, confiscated the phones used to take them, and made certain none were sent electronically to anyone outside the agency.
"It’s now blossomed into a real mess," he said.
The controversy has led to calls for an independent investigation into the matter, with many pointing out an inherent conflict of interest when a department investigates itself. "We should be having outside people investigating what’s happening inside the department that’s been riddled with corruption," said Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
"The idea that sheriff’s [deputies] could get to keep their phones and pinky-swear to delete evidence is not how you go about this," added Jessica Levinson, professor at Loyola Law School.
The crash, which killed Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and seven others, currently remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which, along with the coroner's office, were the only organizations authorized to take photographs of the crash scene.
While the sheriff's department has a policy against taking and sharing crime scene photos, it doesn't apply to accident scenes. They also do not have a policy about taking photographs on personal cell phones, something Villanueva said he would like to see change. He also suggested the passing of a state law making it illegal to take unauthorized photos of accident scenes depicting dead bodies.
Vanessa Bryant, Kobe's widow, is said to have been "absolutely devastated" by the recent allegations as she had gone to the sheriff's office on the day of the crash and "requested that the area be designated a no-fly zone and protected from photographers."
"This was of critical importance to her as she desired to protect the dignity of all the victims and their families," said her lawyer, Gary Robb. "At that time, Sheriff Alex Villanueva assured us all measures would be put in place to protect the families’ privacy, and it is our understanding that he has worked hard to honor those requests."
He said the sharing of the photos would be "an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect, and of the privacy rights of the victims and their families" and called for the perpetrators to "face the harshest possible discipline."
Villanueva called the behavior of the officers "unacceptable" and said they were facing an investigation and possible disciplinary action.