The recent vote by the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors to establish an independent medical examiner’s office, which goes into effect on Thursday, is a reform that other California counties and other parts of the nation should embrace.
The vote came in response to the high-profile resignations of two doctors last year. Bennet Omalu, known for his pioneering and persistent work on degenerative brain disease in NFL players, resigned as chief forensic pathologist for the San Joaquin sheriff’s office in protest over what he described as the sheriff’s attempts to influence and interfere with medical decisions. Omalu cited several cases in which his rulings of homicide in officer-involved deaths were overruled and recorded as accidents.
Only California and a few smaller states allow elected sheriffs to also act as coroners. It’s a little-known fact that they have the final say in manner-of-death rulings, even when the deaths are the result of actions by that sheriff’s deputies. In most other states, there is either an elected coroner or an independent medical examiner. The combined sheriff-coroner system naturally lends itself to potential conflicts of interest, particularly on deaths involving law enforcement, such as deaths in jails or prisons.
Our criminal justice agencies owe the families of victims in unnatural deaths a timely, professional, and independent investigation. And they owe the public a credible assessment of whether a crime has been committed. That’s why, as criminal justice leaders, we are pleased that San Joaquin supervisors voted unanimously to follow the recommendations of an independent audit and begin the process of removing the coroner’s function from the sheriff.
This change is long overdue, and in line with best practices nationally. A 2009 National Academies of Sciences report called for the elimination of the coroner system and noted that a 1928 committee made the same recommendation. This issue has stalled for a variety of reasons, including lack of political will and insufficient budgets to set up separate offices, especially in smaller counties.
But this issue is too important to the people of California and the delivery of justice to let the status quo stand. We know change is possible. Santa Clara County established an independent medical examiner’s office in 2016 following similar allegations of interference. And earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the state Senate to abolish the coroner’s office in counties with a population of more than 500,000 and replace it with a non-elected medical examiner position.
As criminal justice leaders, it’s our duty to ensure that our communities maintain confidence and trust in our criminal justice system. San Joaquin County’s decisive actions have shown that it’s possible to end the era of the intertwined sheriff-coroner’s office. Other counties should do the same.
Tori Verber Salazar is district attorney of San Joaquin County and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Norm Stamper is the former police chief of Seattle and can be contacted at email@example.com.
Miriam Aroni Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor, is executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of prosecutors, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.