Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit showed that 'death books' are still a disturbing custom in law enforcement

Vanessa Bryant (left) and Kobe Bryant (right) touching heads to pose for a photo in black and white attire
Vanessa Bryant and Kobe BryantDonato Sardella/Getty Images
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  • Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit concluded in her favor after she claimed LASD shared photos of her late husband and daughter.

  • The trial shed light on a larger issue among law enforcement officers — taking and sharing photographs of the deceased.

  • Sources told Insider that Kobe Bryant's celebrity status and his 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 left spectators with lingering concerns about law enforcement's use of so-called death books.

Some cops are known to keep "macabre" catalogs of bodies and human remains from crime scenes and disasters, LASD Sheriff Alex Villaneuva acknowledged in 2020 after media reports surfaced that deputies had shared images from the helicopter crash that left Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and six others dead. Adam Bercovici, a law enforcement expert who was called for testimony by Bryant's team, referred to them as "photographic souvenirs" in a phone call with Insider.

"I go back to pre-phone days. So before, when it was Polaroids, is when I first saw people taking photographs that had no evidentiary value for their own personal collection or things that they wanted to hold onto," 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 a common practice," Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputy Doug Johnson, who was among the first to respond to the horrific crash, testified. He added he'd been to 25 to 50 accidents or crime scenes where he had taken photos of victims or victims' remains and on at least 20 occasions had been sent photos of bodies — or body parts — from other officers.

The jury ultimately found the behavior of the first responders violated Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester's constitutional right to the 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 victims' families, Sarah Sentilles, who penned an essay called "When We See Photographs of Some Dead Bodies and Not Others," told Insider. Vanessa Bryant said she still gets panic attacks thinking about the images being leaked. Chester said that while losing his wife and daughter left him hollow, just knowing about the photos filled him with rage.

Death books can also have profound consequences for involved parties

Park Dietz, MD, PhD, a forensic psychiatrist with consulting firm Park Dietz & Associates, told Insider it's inappropriate for investigators to share photographs that are part of an investigation.

"I've had photos of deceased celebrities as part of a case, but they've always been carefully controlled and had to be returned to the agency. But certainly not for anybody's entertainment," Dietz told Insider.

Bercovici told the court earlier in the trial that in his 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, he was shown photos of deceased victims on multiple occasions by other officers – including a Polaroid from the scene of Nicole Brown Simpson's death.

Sometimes, photos of crash victims were kept by law enforcement in souvenir "ghoul books," Bercovici said in court.

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

Sheriff Alex Villanueva himself, who claimed he ordered the photos to be deleted shortly after a private citizen complained about a deputy sharing the photos at a bar, said in an interview with ABC7 that death books were a longstanding issue in the department.

"It's wildly inappropriate," he said. "It's disgusting."

However, when he took the stand in the Bryant case, Villanueva denied knowing about such death books. He said that the photos had to be taken – though, 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 delete all of the known pictures of the crash of that horrible day."

"We hope and pray that all of the pictures are gone forever so we can remember our hero Kobe and his beautiful daughter with images of joy and love," his spokesperson Jennifer Buonantony continued. "It is unfortunate the County attorneys did not better defend our efforts more vigorously. After this incident, Sheriff Villanueva led an effort to ban such taking of pictures in the future. We wish the Bryant family the best."

Deputies said during their testimonies that sharing the photos was brought on by "curiosity" and that it helped them "alleviate stress."

"Whether it's a coping mechanism to desensitize and dehumanize those things, that's probably part of it, but it's still not right. And it still has to be regulated and there still has to be policy," Bercovici told Insider, adding that photos should be regarded strictly as evidence.

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

"There was poor supervision, poor policy initially, that made them think that they could run up and take a bunch of photographs. And then no accountability, because they thought they could share the photographs," he added, also pointing to the department's decision to erase pictures.

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

Celebrities tote a line of appearing both familiar and distant to their audience. Aspects of their lives — and deaths — can seem like information open for public consumption. That lack of privacy on top of a public figure's impact on culture can foster a false sense of acquaintance amongst fans and the public.

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

"Every photograph of violence is an intimate photograph to someone, it's someone's brother, someone's husband, someone's sister, someone's loved one, someone's friend. And I think it has a traumatic effect in a way that the Bryant family was making clear," Sentilles told Insider.

She said Black and Brown bodies, in particular, have historically been "othered" — making them more likely to be shared, placed in the news, and viewed with ease.

"It's not just a picture of a celebrity, it's a picture of a Black celebrity. And I've been thinking about whose bodies are made visible and whose bodies aren't made visible, and in American journalism, almost all of the bodies are bodies of color that are put on the front page," Sentilles told Insider.

Sentilles highlighted that photos of white bodies are not usually disseminated publically, whereas Black people brutalized by police or bodies of Brown people killed overseas are more commonly shown in media.

"There is this long history of circulating images of violence done against other people, whether that's lynching postcards or the circulation of torture photographs or war trophy photography," Sentilles said. "I think you can't separate that history from a history of racist violence, even knowing though in this case for Kobe Bryant it was a helicopter accident."

Bercovici said that it's likely that the death book phenomenon exists outside of celebrities. But, he added, Kobe Bryant's celebrity status and his family's resources are what raised the issue to a larger audience, exposing the "cracks in the Sheriff's Department."

"Kobe did a lot of good for this world and was a really great figure, people looked up to him. I think the fact that he perished in that accident resulted in this being brought out, because if it had just been regular people that didn't have that celebrity status... I can't say for sure, but not as big of a deal would've been made out of it," Bercovici continued.

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

"I think that just every image of the dead deserves to be well-tended, whatever that looks like," she said. "And I think one of the things the Bryant family is raising is, how do we tend the images of the dead? Who gets to look at them and who doesn't, and how might we think about that in a more ethical and compassionate way?"

Read the original article on Insider