Grand Jury finds conflicts of interest in investigation of jail deaths

April 16, 2024


The Santa Barbara Grand Jury found a perceived conflict of interest in the sheriff department’s investigations of mounting deaths at county jails and is recommending multiple changes.

In an attempt to look into allegations of conflicts of interest related to the sheriff overseeing the jail and the coroners office, the Grand Jury compared three counties: Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura. Jury members contrasted each county’s structure, jail death rates and training.

Currently, both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties have a sheriff that also oversees the coroner’s system. If an inmate dies in custody in either SLO or Santa Barbara counties, sheriff’s staff conducts an investigation. However, SLO County outsources its pathology work.

Since 1984, the Ventura’s Medical Examiner Department has been separate from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.

Over the past three years, the number of deaths at Santa Barbara County Jails more than doubled. During the same time, deaths at the San Luis Obispo County Jail dropped to a quarter of what they were during the previous 15 years. Ventura County’s jail death rate dropped slightly.

Both SLO and Ventura counties require that their pathologists are certified by the American Board of
Medicolegal Death Investigators and their facilities and equipment meet the standards set by the National Association of Medical Examiners. In Santa Barbara County, neither medical staff nor the facilities are certified to those standards.

The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury found a perceived conflict of interest in having the county sheriff/coroner investigate and perform autopsies on inmates who die in custody.

“The inherent risk and potential liability to the county are significant when deaths-in-custody occur and those numbers are rising,” the jury wrote in its conclusion. “These conditions are exacerbated when the sheriff’s own Criminal Investigation Department is sometimes reluctant to engage in death in custody investigations.”

The Grand Jury is recommending the sheriff immediately request another Santa Barbara County agency conduct either an independent or parallel investigation for all deaths in custody, and develop and implement a succession plan for pathology technicians.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office is required to respond to the Grand Jury’s findings and recommendations within 60 days.


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This problem will never begin to be solved until counties, like San Luis Obispo, are allowed to combine the jobs of sheriff and coroner under a single individual. They are two completely different jobs and should be treated as such. And when they are not, there is inherently a conflict of interest. It’s astounding that the public has so readily accepted this abomination that serves to Conceal any wrongdoing from either office.

What I meant to write is, the problem will NOT be solved WHILE counties like San Luis Obispo are still allowed to combine the offices of sheriff and coroner.

The job is now Sheriff/Coroner, an elected official overseeing both functions. Maybe you meant to say “as long as counties” are…

Exactly. Thank you for the clarification. That is indeed what I meant