Through social media and a lawsuit, she is trying to hold law enforcement to account in ways that are uncommon for women, and especially for women of color.
For years, under the power dynamics of Los Angeles policing, many victims who have accused powerful law enforcement institutions of wrongdoing have found their charges batted aside or buried in bureaucratic inertia.
But in recent months the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has faced a new, potent adversary: Vanessa Bryant.
By leveraging her wealth and celebrity, Bryant, 38, is flipping the usual script. Through social media posts and a lawsuit, she is holding authorities to account in ways that are uncommon for women, and especially for women of color. And she has done it all while she navigates her grief after the deaths of her 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and her husband, Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star, who were killed in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif., in January 2020.
She filed the suit in September against the Sheriff’s Department, four deputies, the county and its fire department for invasion of privacy and negligence after deputies used personal cellphones to take pictures of the site that included the remains of her husband, their daughter and the seven others who died.
In mid-March, Vanessa Bryant shared an amended complaint and the names of the four accused deputies — Joey Cruz, Rafael Mejia, Michael Russell and Raul Versales — to her more than 14 million Instagram followers. County lawyers had tried to keep the identities of the deputies hidden, arguing, in part, that they could be the target of hackers. It was an odd argument, considering that the lawyers had said the images had been deleted. A federal judge sided with Bryant.
In the month since Bryant shared the names of the deputies, the call for law enforcement accountability has remained at the forefront of public debate through the murder trail of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd.
Bryant’s public campaign against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, a high-profile but long-troubled institution, has caught the attention of community activists and legal experts who are accustomed to families, especially those of color, silently hoping for but not receiving what they would consider justice. Vanessa Bryant is Mexican-American, and her husband was Black.
“She has the ability to speak out and highlight what have been deep-seated and pervasive problems in the Sheriff’s Department around corruption, secrecy and lack of accountability,” said Priscilla Ocen, a member of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission and a professor at Loyola Law School. “She has the means. She has the visibility and, importantly, she has the protection that is afforded based on her wealth and celebrity in ways that families in East Los Angeles or Compton just don’t.”
Bryant, through her lawyer, declined to comment for this article. She has also filed a wrongful-death suit against Island Express Helicopters, the company that operated the helicopter that crashed.
“Transparency promotes accountability,” said Luis Li, one of Bryant’s lawyers. “We look forward to presenting Mrs. Bryant’s case in open court.”
The Sheriff’s Department, in response to a request for comment, referred to a tweet from Sheriff Alex Villanueva: “We will refrain from trying this case in the media and will wait for the appropriate venue. Our hearts go out to all the families affected by this tragedy.”
The department released a statement last fall that said, “As a result of the swift actions we took under extraordinary circumstances, no pictures made it into the public arena.”
The sheriff had assured Bryant that deputies had secured the crash scene to ensure her privacy, according to Bryant’s suit.
The Los Angeles Times reported in February 2020 that a citizen filed a complaint after a deputy showed graphic photos of the crash victims at a bar. Instead of the complaint starting a formal inquiry, according to the suit, the deputies were told “that if they came clean and deleted the photos, they would not face any discipline.”
The suit stated that Bryant “privately sought information from the Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department to assess whether she should brace for her loved ones’ remains to surface on the internet.”
She asked if the photos had been secured and how far they had ventured. According to the suit, each department “refused to respond to all but one of Mrs. Bryant’s questions and asserted they had no legal obligation to assist.”
The suit stated that Cruz, then a deputy trainee, received copies of the photos from Mejia. Cruz is accused of showing them to his niece at his mother’s house, while making a crude remark about the images of the bodies, and of showing the images at a restaurant in Norwalk, Calif., where he could be seen zooming in and out of the pictures on a security camera.
“Many of us are on the receiving end of police mistreatment and we just have to swallow those indignities,” said Jody Armour, a professor at the University of Southern California, whose father, Fred, used criminal law he taught himself in prison to be released after a significant portion of his sentence. “Grin and bear it, because we don’t have the social kind of capital to be taken as seriously as she’s being taken.”
Law enforcement officials, Ocen said, typically shape the narratives that filter out of debated interactions. As a result, public opinion is often split about whom to sympathize with. Not in this case, she said.
“There’s universal sympathy, universal outrage for the conduct of the Sheriff’s Department in trivializing, minimizing and desecrating the memory of Kobe Bryant and their daughter,” Ocen said.
Villanueva, the sheriff, announced an investigation into the sharing of the photos in March 2020, before the suit was filed, and asked the county’s Office of Inspector General to monitor it.
“That was a sham,” said Max Huntsman, the inspector general.
By that point, Huntsman said, his office had started an inquiry into Villanueva’s announcement that the photos were ordered to be deleted. Additional efforts to monitor the investigation were stymied by the Sheriff’s Department, which only offered him periodic, redacted updates, Huntsman said.
“You can’t really rely on an organization to investigate itself when it’s the one that may have behaved improperly,” he said. “And when an elected official is the person who may have behaved improperly, then somebody else needs to investigate them if you want it to be at all credible and have real accountability.”
The watchdog positions of the oversight committee and inspector general were created as checks in the aftermath of department scandals before Villanueva’s tenure as sheriff.
Ocen and eight other civilians make up the commission, which recommends department improvements. But the group does not have the authority to force the department to adopt policies or discipline personnel. Recently, voters granted the commission the power to subpoena records.
The relationship between the Sheriff’s Department and the committee and inspector general is adversarial. Two years ago, the Sheriff’s Department began a criminal investigation into whether Huntsman had illegally obtained internal records.
The issues highlighted by Bryant’s suit represent a broader pattern within the Sheriff’s Department, Huntsman said. In December, his office released a 17-page report highlighting what it called “unlawful conduct” by the department, such as threatening county officials, failing to disclose the names of officers involved in shootings and not enforcing Covid-19 safety directives.
A month earlier, the commission unanimously approved a resolution that condemned Villanueva’s leadership and called for his resignation.
“I’m on record saying that I think he’s a criminal, and I’m on record as identifying a bunch of conduct by the Sheriff’s Department under his watch that is completely unlawful,” Huntsman said. “We have a rogue law enforcement agency as a result of what they’re doing, but that doesn’t mean he has to resign. He has to start following the law.”
In September, Bryant took notice when Villanueva called on LeBron James to double the reward leading to information on a gunman who had ambushed and shot two deputies.
In response, Bryant posted screenshots from a Twitter user onto her Instagram story that read: “He shouldn’t be challenging LeBron James to match a reward or ‘to step up to the plate.’ He couldn’t even ‘step up to the plate’ and hold his deputies accountable for photographing dead children.”
The suits, including ones from the families of the crash’s victims, are ongoing. Some change has already occurred.
In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed into law a bill making it a misdemeanor for law enforcement and emergency medical workers to take photos of scenes that do not involve their work. The bill, H.R. 2655, was introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gipson, Democrat of Carson, and violations carry fines of up to $1,000. Gipson named it the Kobe Bryant Bill.
“Emergency medical workers not only have a responsibility to the victims, but also I believe to the family,” Gipson said. “There’s an obligation to protect the situation and not try to expose the family to further grief.”
He added: “Hopefully this is a deterrent that will prevent this from happening again.”