The death of beloved basketball player Kobe Bryant and his teenage daughter Gianna Bryant was marred with controversy from the beginning. News of the tragic helicopter crash that claimed their lives and the lives of seven others was reported by the tabloid news outlet, TMZ, only an hour after the police department received reports of the fallen helicopter. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva stated soon after that TMZ’s hasty reporting was “extremely disrespectful” and “wholly inappropriate.” His statements now seem wholly hypocritical considering the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is being investigated for taking pictures of the gruesome crash site and Villanueva himself is coming under fire for ordering his deputies to delete the photos instead of following standard investigative protocols.
The actions of these deputies are disgusting; California State Assemblyman Mike Gipson is right in demanding that taking unauthorized photographs of individuals killed in accidents or crimes should be punishable by fines or jail time. The families of these victims, like Vanessa Bryant and her children, should not be concerned with anything but their grief. They should be able to trust that the bodies of their late family members are treated with the utmost respect, instead of hearing how first responders like the police are taking photographs for their own personal use. The pain Vanessa Bryant and her children are feeling is indescribable. They should be able to focus on healing instead of hearing how the first people to see the bodies of their relatives are touting their photographs around like trophies at bars.
Patti Giggans, chair of the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission, stated that the alleged behavior was “unprofessional” and “very regrettable” but her statements are a massive understatement. Taking photos of bodies of these victims is already bad, but sharing them among your co-workers is a despicable action that should result in immediate termination of the deputies. Gipson’s legislation would ensure that there are more serious consequences for first responders who decide to participate in such loathsome actions.
The order from Villanueva to delete the graphic photos instead of cooperating with the oversight commission, however, may point to an impediment to bring these sorts of crimes to justice. His order is especially troubling as it seems like an obvious attempt to avoid public backlash and is even being considered by legal experts as destruction of evidence. There is no guarantee that other police departments will not follow Villanueva’s lead and call for the most discretion if similar matters arise.
This potential issue, however, brings to light the problematic structure of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The oversight commission is part of the department, which means that the department is basically investigating itself. Actually addressing these breaches of policy and arguably, breaches of human decency, will be close to impossible if the department is already filled with corruption. Even with Gipson’s legislation, the department may continue to work covertly to conceal the wrongdoings of their officers, a practice that is already in place in many other police departments.
Firing Villanueva and the other deputies will not immediately resolve the issue. As long as people have cell phones and power, as these first responders did, the temptation to abuse moments like Kobe Bryant’s death will persist. Gipson’s proposed legislation is a good first step to ensure that there are consequences in place to assuage this temptation. The next logical step would be to implement an outside organization with no ties to the police department to investigate the matter, instead of an internal department. These sorts of organizations should be in place across the country so that police departments are no longer allowed to operate under such little supervision and so that families like the Bryants do not have to relive the trauma of their family member’s deaths again.