LOS ANGELES – A former Los Angeles County Fire Department public information officer who assisted the media during the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash in January is suing his employer, alleging he was demoted for resisting demands that he turn over his personal cell phone as part of an inquiry into inappropriate accident scene photos.
Capt. Tony Imbrenda‘s Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit alleges retaliation and civil rights violations. He’s seeking unspecified damages in the complaint brought Wednesday.
“Imbrenda had an impeccable reputation in the Southern California PIO community with extensive earning potential in his post fire service career,” the suit states. “That potential is now totally destroyed at this point, as his reputation both inside and outside the department has been damaged severely.”
A county representative could not be immediately reached for comment.
In September, Vanessa Bryant, the NBA guard’s widow, sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging deputies shared grisly photos taken at the crash site. The case was moved to federal court on Oct. 20.
Imbrenda, 50, had served since September 2018 as the department’s public information officer and was sent to the scene of the Jan. 26 helicopter crash in Calabasas which claimed the lives of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others. He was briefed by the incident commander, then gave a statement and remained on scene to facilitate a news conference with the fire chief and sheriff, according to his court papers.
“During this time, Imbrenda received multiple photographs from personnel operating at the impact site, as is common practice on all major incidents,” the suit states.
Some of the photos came from first responders Imbrenda knew and others from persons Imbrenda did not know, the suit says. Imbrenda says he returned to the area the next day to attend the morning briefing, facilitate assistance with other agencies and to tend to media demands.
“At no time during the briefing was it communicated by chief officers that photography of the incident would be prohibited,” the suit states.
Imbrenda did not take any graphic images of human remains, snapping only a few photos of the debris field with his work cell phone consistent with what he would have done in any other accident of that type, according to his suit, which says he did not take photos with his personal phone.
Although there is no department policy regarding photography at emergency incidents, Imbrenda contacted the firefighters who sent him photos and told them to delete the images as Imbrenda had already done with the debris field photos he took, according to his lawsuit.
“Imbrenda also spread the word that possession of graphic photographs from the … incident could be problematic and that everyone should delete them so as to minimize the potential for the content to fall into the wrong hands,” the suit states.
Several weeks later, a deputy chief told Imbrenda to bring all of his electronic devices to an executive conference room, where the captain turned over his work cell phone and laptop as demanded, the suit says.
“The atmosphere during this interaction was incredibly intimidating,” according to the lawsuit.
Imbrenda subsequently was directed to turn over his personal cell phone or face suspension or termination, but he maintained the demand infringed on protection he had under the Firefighter Bill of Rights, the suit states. In response, the deputy chief handed Imbrenda a document stating he was being removed as a public information officer and would have to give up his county vehicle, according to the plaintiff.
Imbrenda says he was moved other positions, including a telemedine unit assignment that paid him about half of what he earned as PIO. He transferred to serology testing in mid-May and had to drive his personal vehicle to conduct coronavirus antibody testing of department employees, the suit states.
“The experience for him was totally humiliating as employees that he was blood testing made jokes and laughed at his expense as he was clearly being punished for alleged misconduct,” the suit states.
Imbrenda says he was granted a request to transfer to a county fire station in Altadena, effective Sept. 1.
Imbrenda still does not know what misconduct allegations were made against him and the department rumor mill is “relentless” as his name is “regularly thrown around as an individual who has been terminated or will be terminated soon,” the suit states.