The San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors Wednesday moved to begin the process of removing the coroner’s office from Sheriff Steve Moore’s command.
The unanimous vote creates an independent Medical Examiner’s office that will operate with relative autonomy.
Acting on the recommendation of a private consultant hired by the board to look into the possibility of separating the coroner’s office, the board plans to revisit the issue in a month to formally adopt an ordinance that would make the announcement of separation official. At that time, the board will also work to implement the medical examiner’s system that Moore’s detractors have been calling for ever since the county’s two forensic pathologists resigned late last year over his handling of death cases, and for what they viewed as “meddling” in decisions where it wasn’t justified.
“To ensure fairness and impartiality in our judgments, we sought the advice of Dr. Roger Mitchell of RAM Consulting to evaluate the operations of the Coroner’s Office and propose improvements,” said Monica Nino, San Joaquin County Administrator. “A Medical Examiner will provide a high level of expertise and stability that this position requires. County staff will examine the full cost and impact of this new office and make appropriate recommendations on ways to implement the Board’s decision and if the transition should occur in phases.”
The Board also directed the Sheriff to develop and implement several recommendations included in Dr. Mitchell’s report including the immediate development of a comprehensive Occupational Health and Safety Program for the agency and staff.
“As a result of my investigation, I found no evidence to support claims made by former forensic staff of any improper motive on the part of the Sheriff-Coroner and Chief Deputy Coroner,” County Counsel Mark Myles noted. “I am confident that an independent Medical Examiner, will help improve the way death investigations are conducted and reported in San Joaquin County.”
The County sought to provide an independent analysis of different models of death investigations following claims made by two former forensic pathologists who questioned the Sheriffs’ roles related to operations of the Coroner’s Office and how the manner of death is determined.
Moore’s opponent in the June primary, former San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Pat Withrow, spoke in favor of the move before the board made its final decision, as did San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar. The recommendation in the audit that was performed by Washington, D.C., Medical Examiner Dr. Roger Mitchell – who performed the study for RAM Consulting LLC – advocated heavily for an independent office to handle all death cases in San Joaquin County, and pointed out discrepancies in a number of cases that the auditor felt should have been handled differently.
While other counties in California have adopted models that take the formal decision of determining the manner of death out of the hands of the elected Sherriff/Coroner – the combination of offices still commonplace amongst the state as a way to save costs – San Joaquin County’s forensic pathologists are currently only determining the cause of death and forwarding their recommendations for manner of death – homicide, suicide, accident, natural or unidentified – to Moore for his decision.
In at least two cases involving law enforcement officers in San Joaquin County where the forensic pathologists – the world-renowned Dr. Benet Omalu and Dr. Susan Parson – suggested that they be classified as homicides, Moore made his own decision to classify the cases as accidents, which first led to Parson resigning her position Omalu backing her up a week later.
Famous for his discovery of a previously unidentified disease in the brains of deceased professional football players, Omalu eventually began doing contract autopsies for Lake County but remained a San Joaquin County resident.
Supervisor Tom Patti, who represents Manteca north of Yosemite Avenue as well as Lathrop and the rural part of the county west of Stockton, made a request that the county try to bring Omalu back to head up the new Medical Examiner’s Office. In interviews with other media outlets, Omalu championed the decision made by the board but declined to comment on whether he would be open to coming back to work in San Joaquin County.
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