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California

Sheriff’s Department seeks oversight of Kobe Bryant crash photo scandal

Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission
Members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission are sworn in in 2017.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has asked his department’s chief watchdog to monitor its investigation of the scandal over deputies sharing photos of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others.

“I am requesting that the Office of the Inspector General immediately assign an investigator to our case for oversight and transparency purposes,” Villanueva said in a letter this week. “I believe early monitoring of the LASD investigation will ensure a high quality and comprehensive investigation that will enhance public trust and confidence in both organizations.”

In the letter, Villanueva also asked the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to weigh in as the department drafts a new policy regarding the taking and distribution of photographs and recordings by on-duty personnel. The letter was addressed to Inspector General Max Huntsman and Brian Williams, executive director of the commission.

“It is evident our photograph policy is deficient and this incident has identified a need for me to direct the creation of new policy,” he wrote Wednesday.

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The Sheriff’s Department’s Manual of Policies and Procedures states that 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.”

In a response letter on Friday, Huntsman said his office would monitor the internal affairs investigation. He also offered to take over the investigation, as his office has done in the past when conflicts of interest have arisen.

“As you are aware, we are conducting an inquiry into public allegations that LASD command staff ordered the destruction of evidence of crash scene photographs and suppressed the investigation prior to the matter being reported publicly,” Huntsman said in the letter.

The Times first reported last week that deputies were sharing crash photos and that, in response, the leadership of the Sheriff’s Department, instead of following the normal investigative protocols, tried to keep a lid on the episode — even after determining that several more deputies had obtained photos, according to interviews. Subsequently, there were 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.

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Williams and Patti Giggans, the commission chairwoman, also sent a response letter on Friday requesting a meeting with Villanueva before the March 19 commission meeting to “establish a framework as to how we are going to address this and other pressing matters.”

Giggans said Saturday morning that the panel responded “in the affirmative,” saying that it would be happy to give input on department rules on taking photographs at crime and accident scenes.

“We accepted the invitation, his overture, and look forward to working with the sheriff on this,” Giggans said.

The Sheriff’s Department received a written complaint three days after the Jan. 26 crash that a deputy at a Norwalk bar was showing gruesome images taken at the scene of the tragedy.

Villanueva later acknowledged that he ordered the deputies to delete the photos, a move that legal experts and some inside the department said could amount to destruction of evidence.

“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 some how made their way into the public domain. And that’s definitely what we do not want,” Villanueva said, according to KNBC-TV Channel 4.

After The Times’ reporting, Villanueva said he would launch an investigation. In a statement at the time, the department said “the Sheriff is deeply disturbed at the thought deputies could allegedly engage in such an insensitive act. A thorough investigation will be conducted by the Department, with the number one priority of protecting the dignity and privacy of the victims and their families.”

An attorney for Vanessa Bryant, the Laker great’s wife, called the alleged behavior by deputies “inexcusable and deplorable.”

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Gary C. Robb requested an internal affairs investigation into the allegations and the “harshest possible discipline” for those responsible.

“This is an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect and of the privacy rights of the victims and their families,” he said.


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