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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva acknowledged on Monday that he ordered deputies to delete photos taken at the site of the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Kobe and Gianna Bryant and seven others.
Villanueva told NBC4 in Los Angeles that the intent was to halt distribution of the images. But the Los Angeles Times reports that the order has prompted concerns over destruction of evidence within the department.
The Times reported that the department ordered the deletion of the photos last week in an effort to keep the matter quiet.
News broke on Thursday that deputies allegedly took graphic photographs at the crash site on their phones and shared the images in personal settings. The photos were not leaked to the public.
Villanueva acknowledged on Monday that he ordered eight deputies to delete those images.
“That was my No. 1 priority, was to make sure those photos no longer exist,” Villanueva told NBC4. “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.”
Villanueva said that his department was alerted to the photos by a tipster who overheard a conversation between a bartender and a trainee deputy who claimed to have photos from the scene.
Vanessa Bryant’s attorney called for discipline
Bryant’s widow Vanessa Bryant was “absolutely devastated” by the reports of the photos being shared, according to a statement from her lawyer Gary Robb.
“This is an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect and of the privacy rights of the victims and their families,” the statement read. “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.”
Villanueva: Deputies not punished
Villanueva declined to identify the deputies to NBC4. He said that an investigation into the matter remained open, but that nobody had been relieved of their duties.
"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 somehow made their way into the public domain,” Villanueva said. “And that's definitely what we do not want.”
He also said that he intends to approach the California legislature about enacting a law prohibiting unauthorized photos from accident scenes. He said that his department doesn’t have a rule prohibiting the practice, but that he plans to change that.
Report: Formal investigation procedures not followed
Public safety sources told the Times that procedure calls for a formal inquiry and potential Internal Affairs investigation for a complaint like this one.
Those sources said that deputies were instead ordered to delete the photos with a promise that they would not face any discipline if they did.
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