Vanessa Bryant trial highlights ‘death books’ in law enforcement

  • Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit ended in her favor after she claimed LASD shared photos of her late husband and daughter.
  • The lawsuit highlighted a wider problem among law enforcement officers – taking and sharing photos of the deceased.
  • Sources told Insider that Kobe Bryant’s celebrity status and ethnicity may have factored into the photo sharing.

Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit against Los Angeles County first responders over photographs taken of the remains of her late husband and daughter has left onlookers concerned about law enforcement’s use of the so-called books of deceased.

Some cops have been known to keep “macabre” catalogs of bodies and human remains from crime scenes and disasters, LASD Sheriff Alex Villaneuva recognized in 2020 after media reported that deputies shared footage of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and six others. Adam Bercovici, a law enforcement expert who was called to testify by Bryant’s team, called them “photographic memorabilia” in a phone call with Insider.

“I go back to the pre-telephone days. So before, when it was Polaroids, that’s when I first saw people taking pictures that had no probative value for their own personal collection. or things they wanted to keep,” he said, adding that the practice differs from murder books – a collection of images and information relevant to an investigation that is handled by homicide detectives and has strict procedures.

When the jury sided with Vanessa Bryant, awarding her $15 million in damages, they singled out the LA County Sheriff’s Department for repeatedly taking photos of human remains.

“It’s standard practice,” said Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Doug Johnson, who was among the first to respond to the horrific crash. He added that he had been to 25 to 50 crashes or crime scenes where he had taken photos of victims or victim remains and that on at least 20 occasions he had received photos of bodies – or body parts – other agents.

The jury ultimately found that the first responders’ behavior violated Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester’s constitutional right to privacy of images of their loved ones. Chester lost his wife and daughter in the crash.

Keeping photos like these can have a traumatic impact on families of victims, Sarah Sentilles, who wrote a writing titled “When we see photographs of some corpses and not others,” Insider said. Vanessa Bryant said she still had panic attacks thinking about the leaked footage. Chester said that although the loss of his wife and daughter left him hollow, just knowing the photos filled him with rage.

Books about death can also have profound consequences for the parties involved.

Park Dietz, MD, a forensic psychologist at the consulting firm Park Dietz & Associates, told Insider that it’s inappropriate for investigators to share photographs that are part of an investigation.

“I’ve had photos of celebrities who have died in connection with a case, but they were always carefully checked and had to be sent back to the agency. But certainly not for anyone’s entertainment,” said Dietz to Insider.

Bercovici told the court earlier in the trial that during his 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, other officers had shown him photos of deceased victims on several occasions – including a Polaroid of the scene of The death of Nicole Brown Simpson.

Sometimes photos of accident victims were kept by law enforcement in memorabilia “ghoul books,” Bercovici told the court.

But Bercovici told Insider that photos of an accident or crime scene generally shouldn’t be handled by patrol officers. In some cases, they should be kept in murder books.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva himself, who claimed to have ordered the photos deleted shortly after a private citizen complained that a deputy was sharing the photos at a bar, said in an interview with ABC7 that death books had been a long-standing problem in the department.

“It’s extremely inappropriate,” he said. “It’s disgusting.”

However, when speaking in the Bryant case, Villanueva denied knowledge of such books about death. He said photos should be taken – but not necessarily shared.

LASD did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment. However, a spokesperson for Villanueva previously told Insider that he was “proud to have led the charge to legally remove all known photos of the crash from that horrific day.”

“We hope and pray that all photos will be gone forever so that we can remember our hero Kobe and his beautiful daughter with images of joy and love,” spokeswoman Jennifer Buonantony continued. “It is unfortunate that county prosecutors did not better defend our efforts with more vigor. After this incident, Sheriff Villanueva led an effort to prohibit such photo takings in the future. We wish the best to the Bryant family.

The deputies said in their testimony that sharing the photos was due to ‘curiosity’ and that it helped them to ‘relieve stress’.

“Whether it’s a coping mechanism to desensitize and dehumanize these things, that’s probably part of it, but it’s still not fair. And that still needs to be regulated and there still needs to be a policy. “, Bercovici told Insider, adding that the photos should be strictly considered as evidence.

Bercovici said the lawsuit is indicative of leadership and accountability issues within the department.

“There was bad supervision, bad policy to begin with, which made them think they could run around and take a bunch of pictures. And then no accountability, because they thought they could share the pictures,” he added, also highlighting the department’s decision. to erase images.

The roles of fame and ethnicity as catalysts for photographs and sharing

Celebrities tote one appearance line at a time familiar and distant to their audience. Aspects of their life – and their death – may appear to be information open for public consumption. This lack of privacy in addition to a public figure’s impact on the culture can foster a false sense of familiarity among fans and audiences.

Sentils — a writer who has also taught courses on photography and the deceased — said photos of human remains are sensitive artifacts that society may not be equipped to view in an ethical context.

“Each photograph of violence is an intimate photograph for someone, it is someone’s brother, someone’s husband, someone’s sister, someone’s loved one, someone’s friend from someone, says Insider.

She said black and brown bodies, in particular, have always been “different” – making them more likely to be shared, placed in the news and easily viewed.

“It’s not just a photo of a celebrity, it’s a photo of a black celebrity. And I thought about whose bodies are made visible and whose bodies aren’t made visible, and in the American journalism, almost all bodies are bodies of color that are put on the front page,” Sentilles told Insider.

Sentils Underline that photos of white bodies are generally not shown publicly, while black people being brutalized by the police or the bodies of dark people killed abroad are more often shown in the media.

“There’s this long history of circulating images of violence against other people, whether it’s postcards of lynching or the circulation of photographs of torture or photographs of war trophies,” said Sentils. “I think you can’t separate that story from a story of racist violence, even knowing that in this case for Kobe Bryant, it was a helicopter crash.”

Bercovici said it’s likely the book-of-death phenomenon exists outside of celebrities. But, he added, Kobe Bryant’s celebrity status and his family’s resources are what brought the issue to a wider audience, exposing “cracks in the sheriff’s department.”

“Kobe did a lot of good for this world and was a very good figure, people looked up to him. ordinary people who don’t have that celebrity status…I can’t say for sure, but it wouldn’t have been that important,” Bercovici continued.

Sentilles argued that the case highlights the ethical issues of photos depicting death in a larger context.

“I think every death picture deserves to be well maintained, no matter what it looks like,” she said. “And I think one of the things that the Bryant family brings up is, how do we maintain the images of the dead? Who can watch them and who doesn’t, and how could we think about that in a more ethical way and compassionate way?”

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