Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

Sheriff Ordered Deletion of Kobe Bryant Crash Photos to Prevent Wider Distribution

Vanessa Bryant's lawyer says it was an "unspeakable violation of human decency"

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he ordered eight deputies to delete graphic photos of the helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant, Bryant's daughter and seven others to avoid the risk of the photos being shared and possibly becoming public.

"That was my No. 1 priority, was to make sure those photos no longer exist," Villanueva told NBC News. "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 said he learned the week of the crash that as many as eight deputies had taken, seen, or exchanged the photos, including a trainee deputy assigned to the Lost Hills Station, which patrols the area where the helicopter crashed Jan. 26.

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.

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva

"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."

The sheriff's department was alerted to the photos by someone who overheard a conversation at a bar between a bartender and a person who claimed to have photos from the accident scene, Villanueva said. That person was said to be the trainee deputy.

Law enforcement sources have told NBCLA that at least two LA County Fire Department firefighters also took photos of the crash scene and were directed to delete them.

An attorney for Bryant's widow Vanessa said it was inexcusable and deplorable for first responders to, allegedly, breach their duty.

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"This is an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect, and of the privacy rights of the victims and their families," lawyer Gary C. Robb said in a statement.

"We are demanding that those responsible for these alleged actions face the harshest possible discipline, and that their identities be brought to light, to ensure that the photos are not further disseminated," Robb said.

Villanueva said he was focused on containing the potential distribution of the photos, rather than punishing the deputies, though he said there is an open investigation into what happened.

"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," he said.

Villanueva added that the sheriff's department does not have a policy that explicitly addresses deputies photographing a gruesome scene on their personal cellphones, and said he plans to change that.

A lawsuit was filed Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court that claims the pilot of the helicopter that crashed Jan. 26 with Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and 7 others on board was reckless and failed to properly monitor the weather. Eric Leonard reports for NBC4 News at 4 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020

"The other step is I want to approach Sacramento and see if we can get a legislative remedy where we can make it a crime to take unauthorized photos of accident scenes that depict the remains of those deceased," the sheriff said.

The law enforcement sources, who spoke about this case on condition of anonymity, said there are times when police officers might take photographs of an accident or crime scene when they arrive -- precisely because they're worried about being accused of manipulating or altering evidence.

The LAPD changed its rules for officers' personal phones after images of singer Rihanna's bruised face appeared on the TMZ.com website, shortly after her then-boyfriend Chris Brown was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence.

Former Chief Charlie Beck issued an order to officers warning them that any images they captured while on duty, even if the photos were on a personal cellphone, should immediately be considered an official record of the LAPD, and subject to the same restrictions as a confidential document or crime scene photo.

The LA County District Attorney's Office decided in 2012 not to file criminal charges against two female officers that LAPD internal affairs investigators had concluded were the conduit for the photos. One of the officers was fired.

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