Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Monday said eight deputies were reportedly involved in the taking and sharing of inappropriate photos from the scene of the helicopter crash that killed NBA star Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others.
The deputies were ordered to delete the photos, he said, and now face an investigation and possible disciplinary action.
“That was my No. 1 priority, was to make sure those photos no longer exist,” Villanueva told NBC News in a recent interview. “We identified the deputies involved, they came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they deleted them. And, we are content that those involved did that.”
The sheriff said he learned the week of the crash that as many as eight deputies had seen, taken or shared the graphic photos. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that a public safety source with knowledge of the Jan. 26 crash spotted one of the photos on the cell phone of another official in a setting unrelated to the crash investigation.
Villanueva described the emotional toll of dealing with the grieving family members, telling local outlet KABC-TV “it’s just a sense of betrayal” learning that illicit photos had been taken.
“It’s wildly inappropriate. It is disgusting,” he added. “And it harms people that suffered a tragedy already; on top of that to think it could be expanded beyond that by having a public display of their loved one’s remains.”
Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among the nine people who perished in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on the morning of Jan. 26. The group was headed to a girl’s basketball tournament at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in nearby Thousand Oaks when the aircraft crashed into a hillside.
According to the sheriff, only the county coroner’s office and investigators with NTSB were authorized to take photos of the crash scene. Villanueva noted that sheriff’s department policy bars the taking and distribution of crime scene photos, however, it doesn’t apply to accident scenes.
It also isn’t a crime for law enforcement officials to take such photos, KABC reports.
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, was “absolutely devastated” by reports that deputies had shared graphic photos of the crash site, her lawyer said last week. Attorney Gary Robb said Mrs. Bryant previously went to the sheriff’s office to demand “the area be designated a no-fly zone and protected from photographers.”
Robb himself has called for the “harshest possible discipline” against the officers involved, and many online critics agree.
“Are they getting fired? So much for protect and serve!” one Twitter user wrote.
Another chimed in: “No integrity and lack of empathy for human life, they should be fired immediately.”
“All 8 must be FIRED and charged with crimes,” said another.”This is a major breach of the public’s trust. Clean house and send a message that this won’t be tolerated! Get your act together @lasd @LACoSheriff.”
Villanueva is now working to change the policies in his own department. He told local media he hopes to see a state law that would make it illegal for those without authorization to take accident scene photos depicting dead bodies.
The cause of the helicopter crash remains under investigation.
Watch more in the video below.