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Editorial: Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s crash site isn’t a souvenir stand for sheriff’s deputies

Kobe Bryant helicopter crash
Firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash where retired NBA star Kobe Bryant died on Jan. 26 in Calabasas. Unauthorized photos depicting human remains were reportedly taken and shared by sheriff’s deputies.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The word that best describes it is “unconscionable.” A sheriff’s deputy acquires a sensitive photo of human remains from a tragic helicopter crash, walks into a bar, pulls up the photo on his phone and shows it off. Was it some kind of sick pickup line?

He apparently wasn’t the only one. The Times has reported that several other L.A. County sheriff’s deputies have been sharing graphic photos of the Jan. 26 helicopter crash that killed retired NBA star Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others.

Many fans who loved Bryant sought to express their grief by buying Lakers jerseys and other memorabilia, and that’s perfectly understandable. But photos of human remains are not souvenirs, and sharing them does not express affection or grief — especially when the people doing the sharing are sworn law enforcement officers who presumably are trained to meet a higher standard of professional conduct.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Sheriff Alex Villanueva scolded a news outlet for reporting Bryant’s death before the Sheriff’s Department could notify the victims’ families. The sheriff called the action “disrespectful” and “inappropriate” — as indeed it was, although no rule or law requires the delay of accurate reporting on grounds of simple human decency.

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But presumably there are indeed rules of professional conduct that govern the gathering and sharing of crime-scene or disaster photos by law enforcement officers, whether those photos were part of an official investigation or just looky-loo snaps taken by first responders.

The sheriff used the right words again when describing the photo sharing, according to news reports: Inexcusable. Unconscionable. Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant said through her attorney that she was “devastated” by the insensitive gathering and sharing of photos.

So who took the pictures and how many deputies carried them around on their phones? Whom did they show them to? Did any deputy offer to sell them? Or were deputies just showing off? Do department rules and training cover sharing sensitive photos and documents?

Villanueva promised a full investigation — but as The Times reported on Feb. 28, he also said that deputies who come forward, admit having the photos and delete them would not be disciplined.

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Perhaps the sheriff sees that as the best way to nip the problem in the bud, but it doesn’t tell the public how common a problem this kind of thing is in the department, why deputies believed such actions were acceptable, or how many deputies were involved.

An investigation should go forward, but the public would be better served if it were conducted by the inspector general and the Civilian Oversight Commission, and not just by the Sheriff’s Department itself.


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