Elected coroners vary from appointed in reporting suicides
August 29, 2011
In the vast majority of California counties, including San Luis Obispo County, elected sheriffs have the final say in determining the manner of death in coroners’ cases. [CaliforniaWatch]
Researchers at Temple University concluded in a new study that the political element of those jobs might be reducing the number of reported suicides. These sociologists discovered that counties where elected officials run death investigations have “slightly lower official suicide rates” than areas served by appointed medical examiners and coroners.
“The significant, albeit small, effects of office type on official suicide rates in our results support the notion that elected coroners are more susceptible to pressure from family or friends to report the death as something other than suicide and that medical examiners’ greater professionalism shields them from such influences,” the report states.
Suicide continues to carry a stigma in society, at times compelling relatives to lobby coroners to make a change or even file lawsuits to overturn such a ruling, California Watch said.
Forensic pathologists, the doctors who specialize in performing autopsies, do at times make errors that merit skepticism. But more often than not, the doctors’ conclusions are sound, California Watch reported.
The combined “sheriff-coroner” setup is different from much of the country, where coroners officially are independent from law enforcement, California Watch added. Whether affiliated with law enforcement or not, most elected officials who oversee death investigations, including San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson, have little to no medical training.
“If office type is affecting misreporting, our results suggest that female suicides are being misclassified most often as deaths from illness, and, to a lesser extent, car accidents and possibly (although not plausibly) non-firearm homicides, while male true suicides are being misclassified most frequently as car accidents,” the report said.