Taking and sharing pictures of Kobe Bryant's body cost LA County millions and devastated Vanessa Bryant. Memphis could face similar consequences over an officer's photo of Tyre Nichols, a trial expert says.

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Taking and sharing pictures of Kobe Bryant's body cost LA County millions and devastated Vanessa Bryant. Memphis could face similar consequences over an officer's photo of Tyre Nichols, a trial expert says.
The program for Tyre Nichols' funeral service.Meka Wilson/Insider
  • A police report said that as Memphis officers beat Tyre Nichols, one officer took a photo of him.
  • The report said the officer who photographed Nichols sent the photo to colleagues and friends.
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A Memphis police officer's decision to take and share a photo of Tyre Nichols as a group of officers beat him to death could open a pathway for the Nichols family to sue the city of Memphis for millions of dollars, a former federal prosecutor and trial expert said.

The brazen act, described in police decertification documents released in early February, brings to mind a harrowing trial in August in which Los Angeles jurors found that sheriff's deputies and county fire officials had violated the constitutional privacy rights of Vanessa Bryant and others by taking and sharing photos of Kobe Bryant, Gigi Bryant, and other victims of a helicopter crash in January 2020.

Though there's a difference between the cases — the Los Angeles first responders weren't involved in or accused of being involved in the crash victims' deaths — the consequences of taking and sharing the photo of Nichols could be costly for the police department and deeply traumatic for Nichols' loved ones, Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor who isn't connected to the case, told Insider.

Bryant said on the stand in August that learning that officials had taken and shared photos of her loved ones' bodies was traumatic. "I ran to the side of the house and broke down — I wanted to run and scream," Bryant said. "It was like having the sensation of wanting to run off a pier into the ocean, but I can't escape my body."

Bryant said she felt she had two choices: "try to live my life or end it."

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Ultimately, the jury sided with Bryant, saying her grief from the crash was compounded by the photos. The jurors awarded Bryant and Chris Chester, who also lost family members in the crash, about $15 million apiece.

In Memphis, where five ex-officers face charges of second-degree murder in Nichols' death, the choice to document Nichols' torment on a personal cellphone could create deeper trauma and legal issues.

The city of Memphis could face more than a wrongful-death suit

On January 7, Memphis officers pulled Nichols over; they said they suspected him of reckless driving, though the police chief has said there's no evidence to support their suspicion. Videos released by the city show at least five officers trying to apprehend Nichols, then pursuing him to a street corner, where they proceed to take turns punching, kicking, and kneeling on a defenseless Nichols for several minutes.

Nichols, who was hospitalized after the police beating, died from his injuries on January 10. Since then, five officers who stopped and brutalized Nichols have been fired and charged with second-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression. They've pleaded not guilty.

The Tennessee police decertification documents obtained by Insider say that one of the officers, Demetrius Haley, also took a photo of Nichols on his phone as Nichols lay bloodied and handcuffed and sent it to colleagues and friends.

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Rahmani said that while the stronger claims are tied to Nichols' death, the city and Haley would likely be found civilly liable for the photo and emotional distress inflicted on the family, as well as any violations of their constitutional privacy rights.

"It's going to make the jurors dislike the police officers even more so, even if those claims are a lot less valuable than the wrongful-death claim," Rahmani told Insider, adding that the photo "just shows how extreme and outrageous the police officer's conduct was."

An 'endemic' issue

Adam Bercovici, a Los Angeles Police Department veteran who testified at Bryant's trial, told Insider that over his three-decade career with the department he saw numerous officers taking improper crime-scene photos and keeping "death books," or records of crimes or accidents sometimes depicting a horrific death or injury.

"It was something that was endemic to the organization," Bercovici said.

During Bryant's trial, a member of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department described taking photos of victims at accidents or crime scenes as a "common practice." Some deputies said they requested photos of the crash victims out of curiosity, while other officials were said to have shown gruesome photos to colleagues and friends at bars or galas and over the game "Call of Duty."

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In Memphis, the photo of Nichols was also said to have spread outside law enforcement. "On your personal cell phone, you took two photographs while standing in front of the obviously injured subject after he was handcuffed. In your Garrity statement, you admitted you shared the photo in a text message with five (5) people; one civilian employee, two MPD officers, and one female acquaintance," the police decertification document for Haley said. "During the administrative investigation, a sixth person was identified as a recipient of the same photograph."

Bercovici criticized the "inhumanity" of the photo of Nichols. "If an officer takes a photograph and sent it to some girl he knew, he obviously didn't think there was ever going to be consequences for it," Bercovici added. "And that's the organization's responsibility, because somewhere they didn't address that."

Memphis PD did not immediately return Insider's request for comment.

The Bryant trial offered a damning verdict for officers

Sarah Sentilles, an American academic and author who has written about the ethics of photography, told Insider in September that the officials' taking of photos at the helicopter crash site had a "traumatic effect in a way that the Bryant family was making clear."

Now the Nichols family may have another avenue to hold the city of Memphis accountable for Nichols' brutal death.

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"Every photograph of violence is an intimate photograph to someone," Sentilles previously told Insider. "It's someone's brother, someone's husband, someone's sister, someone's loved one, someone's friend."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz contributed to this report.

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