The written complaint came in three days after the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others: At the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, a young Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy was showing gruesome photos taken at the scene of the tragedy.
“He was working the day the helicopter went down and took pictures of the crash site and bodies,” the author wrote.
The report, filed just after midnight on a contact form on the Sheriff’s Department’s website, generated an email to the Sheriff’s Information Bureau, a team that handles media requests.
From that point on, for nearly five weeks, the leadership of the Sheriff’s Department tried to keep a lid on the episode instead of following the normal investigative protocols — even after determining that several more deputies had obtained photos, according to interviews.
The efforts to avoid public disclosure of the deputies’ actions began in earnest with an order from Sheriff Alex Villanueva to have them quietly delete the photos, a move that some inside the department as well as legal experts said could amount to destruction of evidence.
After The Times disclosed last week that the deputies shared the photos, Villanueva said he would launch an investigation. But now there are mounting demands for an independent inquiry into the matter, the latest in a series of scandals to afflict the nation’s largest sheriff’s department in recent years.
Patti Giggans, chair of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said she expects Villanueva to find out what happened in a timely way, but that the destruction of photos “looks like a cover-up of misconduct.” She added, “I’m hoping that that’s not the case.”
Joseph Giacalone, who teaches police procedures at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the Sheriff’s Department mishandled the complaint.
For starters, he said, the department should have preserved the photos, confiscated any cellphones used to take them and made certain no images were sent electronically to anyone outside the agency.
“It’s now blossomed into a real mess,” Giacolone said.
He and others said the public would only have confidence in an outside investigation.
“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, who has long advocated for more accountability and transparency within the agency. Cullors spearheaded the campaign for Measure R, an initiative on Tuesday’s ballot that would secure subpoena power for the oversight commission.
There’s an “inherent conflict of interest” when a department investigates itself, said Jessica Levinson, professor at Loyola Law School.
“And let’s be honest, especially this department,” she said, while also criticizing how the allegations were handled initially. “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.”
An attorney representing Vanessa Bryant requested a sheriff’s internal affairs investigation into the allegations and the “harshest possible discipline” for those responsible.
Gary C. Robb 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 in a statement.
Villanueva has provided scant details on the scope of his investigation or who within the department is conducting it. Giacolone and other legal observers said the probe should be turned over to the county Office of Inspector General, which does not report to the sheriff.
Villanueva did not respond to repeated requests for comments by The Times. In a brief telephone conversation Wednesday, he likened the newspaper’s queries to tabloid journalism.
“I got nothing to say to you,” he said, before hanging up.
On Monday, Villanueva gave interviews to several broadcast outlets. KNBC-TV reported that Villanueva said he focused on containing the dissemination of the photos rather than punishing the deputies. He said eight deputies were involved, but he did not identify any of them.
“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 tenfold that those photos would have somehow made their way into the public domain. And that’s definitely what we do not want,” he told the station.
According to KNBC, Villanueva said no department policy specifically addresses deputies photographing such crash scenes on their personal cellphones, and that he plans to change that.
However, according to the Sheriff’s Department’s Manual of Policies and Procedures, members shall not use a personal cellphone “to record, store, document, catalog, transmit, and/or forward any image, document, scene, or environment captured as a result of their employment and/or while performing official Department business that is not available or accessible to the general public.”
Villanueva has faced scrutiny on a number of decisions since he took office late in 2018, including attempts to pull back on deputy discipline reforms imposed after a jail abuse scandal that brought down longtime Sheriff Lee Baca and other top leaders, along with hiring decisions and a failure to comply with information requests from the inspector general and other watchdogs, the public and the news media.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the Jan. 26 crash near Calabasas. Spokesman Peter Knudson said he knows of no formal language in the board’s policies that would require local agencies to surrender photos that might be helpful to an inquiry. However, he said, “if there are images of an investigative value, we do ask local authorities for those images.”
Although the citizen’s report was sent to the Sheriff’s Information Bureau, the captain who heads that office, Jorge Valdez, told The Times last week that he was “unaware of any complaint” and that “there was no order given to delete any photographs.”
He has not responded to follow-up questions.
Five employees at the Baja California Bar and Grill working on Sunday night said they had no knowledge of a deputy sharing photos there. The person who filed the complaint did not respond to multiple interview requests.