Elected coroners vary from appointed in reporting suicides

August 29, 2011

Ian Parkinson

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.

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Well If you think about it, it actually does make sense that LE would make the final call where a suicide is concerned and maybe some other kinds of death. A coroner can certainly determine that the cause of death to a gun shot victim was a severed aorta in the heart or whatever but he can’t determine if the wife who say’s he shot himself , is anymore truthful that if she states that she did it by accident . It is the investigators that have to provide the forensic studies, blood splatter/crime scene analysis, expert gun shot recreationist to determine the distance of the discharge etc.etc (do I sound like the forensic files show?) Same thing if a guy drives off a cliff, it’s the accident investigators that have the expertise to determine if the guy tried to stop or just drove off the cliff. Likewise, the coroner can determine that Mrs Edwards expired from a large dose of anti freeze but did she drink it by accident and did her 5 year old grand son really think he was sharing his kool aide , or did grand pa put him up to it, or did the suicidal Mrs Edwards really try to frame the SOB (grand pa) on her way out, just like she said she would? Isn’t this fun?? Now you all know for sure that I watch too much Forensic Files but I’m sure you still you get my drift???

Cindy, no offense, but it really appears you don’t know what you are talking about. And yes, I was going to say it myself, but you said it first: You get your “knowledge from a B.S. TV shows that are anything but factual.

It is a coroners job to determine the cause of death. It is a medical function and a coroner should and can gather all the necessary information to make that determination. And it would be better if that coroner is NOT directly connected to law enforcement for numerous reasons.

No offense to Sheriff Parkinson, but he is absolutely NOT medically qualified to be a “coroner”, but we let him be one anyway. Why?

What the heck, I already said that it is the coroners job to determine the physical cause of death. I said it is the LE’s job to do the investigation where there is a question of suicide, accidental death or murder. The coroner isn’t trained to do those kinds of investigations. He isn’t even trained to visit a crime scene to determine if a person shot themselves! HE IS TRAINED TO DETERNINE THE CAUSE OF DEATH. He can certainly shed light where he see’s brusing or suspicious injuries but when did you ever hear of a coroner visiting a crime scene? He can perform forensic toxicology tests but how can he determine if the poison or over dose was accidental, intentional or slipped into someones glass? That takes an investigation.

Cindy, it is the Coroner’s responsibility to gather ALL necessary information to determine the cause of death. That would naturally INCLUDE ALL necessary law enforcement reports, analysis, etc., etc. He then combines those factors with the MEDICAL findings and his MEDICAL EXPERIENCE AND TRAINING (if he actually has any) to officially determine the cause of death. As it is now in SLO County, our “Coroner” has little or no medical training and must rely on the medical reports from his medically qualified UNDERLINGS.

Is this really where we want to scrimp on costs, hiring a “coroner”who really is not qualified to be a coroner? But that is the way it is in SLO County, and law enforcement has plenty of bad reasons to want to keep it that way.

Now I understand where you’re going with this. So the investigation would proceed at the direction of the coroner. The coroner then bases his determination on the his medical findings combined with the LE investigative results. OK that makes sense. Yes, I would prefer that a coroner had full authority to direct an investigation, order forensic testing as necessary and assume the full responsibility of identifying the cause of death. I do agree that the final word should not be left to the discretion of a Sheriff but rather to a qualified medical practitioner, a TRAINED and LICENSED CORONER.

Satisfied ;)

The SLO County Sheriff-Coroners Office is so badly trained that it’s no wonder so many “mistakes” are made regarding the “cause & manner of death” in this County. I attended the West Coast Coroner’s seminar in LA & NOT ONE PERSON from SLO Sheriff or SLO PD was in attendance. This seminar brought in EXPERTS from all over the US & NO ONE FROM SLO was in attendance. They obviously do NOT believe in improving their skills by learning new methods & techniques from the EXPERTS IN THE FIELD. SLO County will just continue being corrupt & inept. Parkinson is definitely NOT a “qualified” Coroner…he simply does NOT have the training or the skills to do the job correctly.

Cindy, The LA Coroner’s Office is made up of people who have a mixture of medical as well as law enforcement backgrounds. They are an excellent example of what a “Coroner’s Office” should be. SLO County is so below par it’s pathetic.

Well it would be nice to have a separate “CORONERS OFFICE” that specifically handles medical examiner responsibilities, but I for one don’t want to pay 15 new employees salaries which would include high pensions and exaggerated ADMIN COSTS. My suggestion would be to have all Deputies, which include “Slick Sleeves” and up to go through several CORONER SCHOOLS. Give them the experience, they get paid to do the job, they might as well know how to do it to the best of their abilities.

As a first reponder who goes to calls ont suicide, fatal accidents, drug over doses, heart attacks and other fatal incidents, I must say that once a person expires it isjust required that either a doctor, paramedic or the coroner make the call. Whether the coroner is elected, appointed or hired, they all have the same criteria judgement.

easymoney, it still boils down to what kind of training these people have had, & hopefully continue getting advanced training. SLO County is not big on continuing ed. for it’s PD, Sheriff/Coroner & THAT’S not a good thing…

I haven’t read the report so I don’t know if this comment is even applicable. But it’s interesting that it appears to focus on the idea that it is the elected who have a sort of conflict of interest that leads them to rule for a cause other than suicide, as opposed to the entrenched appointed having the conflict of interest. I would actually be quicker to explore the latter hypothesis before the former.

Having the Sheriff serve as Coroner has always been a bad idea, but was justified as a “cost saving” measure, despite the fact that the Sheriff does not have any medical training.

The biggest problem comes when someone dies at the hands of law enforcement, as has happened many times in SLO County. In those situations the Sheriff/Coroner has a huge conflict of interest but proceeds anyway, leaving him open to accusations and suspicions that any wrong-doing by law enforcement will be covered up.

We should definitely have a separate coroner. But law enforcement wants them combined for all the wrong reasons, mainly, to help cover their butts in ugly situations. We’ve had such accusations in SLO County.

A citizen’s Review Committee can be something useful if it is set up better than our Grand Jury which is useless.

Regarding ‘suicides’, as long as we don’t start recording ‘honor killings’ as suicides…. which has happened elsewhere.

As long as Grand Juries are hand-picked, we’ll continue to get what we’ve been getting…

“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.” I for one do not see this statement as a condemnation of Sheriff Parkinson but, more a statement of fact (that the sheriff has no medical training). Perhaps this is just a case of “you get what you pay for” in the combining of the office of Sheriff and of Coroner, where there is not a medical professional to make the final determination. It would be best for all of us if the criteria for making that final cause of death were not allowed to be swayed by political situations. So far I have not seen anything to make me wish that Ian Parkinson had not been elected, by the sparse reporting of what I have read he seems to be doing a good job and I really hope that he continues to do well. His apparent willingness to meet with Kristen Smart’s parents does show that he is willing to listen, and the report of his touring the Sheriff Sub-stations unannounced and without escort also shows that he is truly trying to do a good job. Regardless, I still assert that we citizens would be better served by all law enforcement agencies IF we had a citizens oversight committee to review controversial incidents involving law enforcement agencies.

I often diverge from bobfromsanluis in political view, but mostly find his comments reasoned and thoughtful. I agree with the comment above and give it a thumbs up.