The scandal over Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies sharing photos of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash widened Monday when Sheriff Alex Villanueva acknowledged to NBC4 that he ordered the destruction of the images.
The Times reported last week that in an attempt to keep the matter under wraps, the department quietly ordered deputies to delete any photos of the helicopter crash scene after a citizen complained that a deputy was showing the gruesome images at a Norwalk bar.
The decision sparked outrage from some inside the department who said the decision could amount to the destruction of evidence.
Normally, such a complaint would trigger a formal inquiry and possibly an internal affairs investigation, strictly following the chain of command, two public safety sources told The Times.
Instead, in the days after the crash, deputies were ordered to report to the department’s Lost Hills station and told that if they came clean and deleted the photos, they would not face any discipline, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the events.
Vanessa Bryant was “absolutely devastated” by the deputies actions, according to her attorney. The lawyer, Gary C. Robb, requested an internal affairs investigation into the allegations and the “harshest possible discipline” for those responsible. He called the alleged behavior “inexcusable and deplorable.”
“This is an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect, and of the privacy rights of the victims and their families,” he said.
Villanueva has not responded to repeated inquiries by The Times about who ordered the deputies to erase the photos without a full internal investigation.
But NBC4 reported that he admitted he made the decision to order eight deputies to delete the images.
“We identified the deputies involved, they came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they had deleted them. And, we’re content that those involved did that,” he told the station.
“We’ve communicated in no uncertain terms that the behavior is inexcusable,” Villanueva said. “I mean, people are grieving for the loss of their loved ones. To have that on top of what they’ve already gone through is unconscionable. And to think any member of our department would be involved in that.”
It was only after The Times’ report Thursday that the Sheriff’s Department launched an investigation.
“Had we done the original, usual routine, which was relieve everybody of duty and everybody lawyers up and all that, that would increase the odds 10-fold that those photos would have some how made their way into the public domain. And that’s definitely what we do not want,” Villanueva said, according to NBC4.
Joseph Giacalone, who teaches police procedures at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the L.A. County Office of the Inspector General should open an inquiry into how the Sheriff’s Department handled the complaint.
“Now the whole investigation is tainted,” he said of the Sheriff’s Department’s new probe. “No matter what they find, the public is going to have a raised eyebrow.”