Monday, August 22, 2016
Santa Clara County: Sheriff, coroner offices headed for split
Blog note: this article references a 2006 grand jury report. Some grand jury reports have a long life.
SAN JOSE -- The 12-year marriage of Santa Clara County's sheriff's and medical examiner-coroner offices appears to be headed for splitsville.
County officials had merged the offices in 2004 after controversies sullied the medical examiner's office, independent since 1962.
A 2006 civil grand jury report concluded that the union seemed "successful from an administrative perspective." But a medical examiner testified at a June budget meeting that the relationship with their sheriff overseers has been rocky. And the death a year ago of a jail inmate allegedly at the hands of correctional deputies now charged with his murder has revived conflict-of-interest concerns in death investigations.
County Executive Jeff Smith said that the medical examiner merger with the sheriff had aimed "to improve management and oversight," but "that was a different time and place."
"We need to rethink it," Smith said. "It's better to have a separate, free-standing entity responsible for finding and holding evidence, in order to avoid the possibility of contamination or the impression that there's some kind of impact being made on decision making."
Sheriff Laurie Smith, no relation to the county executive, seems to be on board with the suggested separation. She said that while the county executive has commended our management of the medical examiner-coroner's office, "the philosophy of the county has changed to have an independent coroner's office."
The county Finance and Government Operations Committee considered the suggestion last week and is expected to continue the discussion in October to hear more information about how the new structure would work and recommendations from national medical examiner groups.
The county put the medical examiner's office under the sheriff's office after years of concerns about its management. A 1997 civil grand jury had called for the chief medical examiner-coroner to retire "as soon as a qualified replacement can be found" and recommended additional training. But although some key personnel were either fired or resigned voluntarily, problems continued.
The 2004 move to put the office under the sheriff's department came after the medical examiner at the time faced accusations from a former employer of stealing books from the office. It was noted then that although a handful of large counties had moved to the independent medical examiner model, in most California counties, the sheriff's office also doubled as the coroner.
"There was a feeling at that time that some of the management of the office was not as tight and responsible as it should be," county executive Smith said.
The change in Santa Clara County was more of a hybrid, however. The three medical examiners conduct death investigations and perform autopsies while the office is administered by a sheriff's captain, lieutenant and sergeant.
While it would cost the county $825,000 to make the change due to necessary new administrative positions, the sheriff's office would benefit from a captain, lieutenant and sergeant returning to law enforcement duties. The medical examiner's office would also be freed to seek accreditation as its own entity.
"Accreditation has the explicit purpose of improving the quality of forensic investigations of death," said Deputy County Executive Martha Wapenski, "and these standards aid in a higher caliber of death investigations for the community."
County officials also want to bolster the perception of the office's independence from law enforcement. A county report on the proposed split said that "the medical examiner must be able to complete an independent and impartial assessment of all officer-involved deaths without the perception of bias or undue influence by the medical examiner conducting the investigation."
At the June budget meeting, Dr. Michelle Jorden, the medical examiner, said the "conflict posed by the current operating structure is well known," and she alleged that the sheriff's office has since at least 2012 "impeded the examiners from receiving evidence necessary for the determination of cause and manner of death."
Sheriff Smith did not comment on that assertion. Jorden and the county report both said that it's timely to make a change in light of high-profile in-custody and officer-involved deaths.
The county executive said that Jorden's allegations are being investigated, but in the meantime administration and the sheriff's office staff have met to discuss the matter of separation.
"We more clearly elucidated what it will mean in terms of staffing and changes in responsibilities," he said, "and really all came to the conclusion that it's the best approach for a number of reasons."
August 21, 2016
The Mercury News
By Eric Kurhi