By Chris Reed.
An effort to force up to nine California counties with nearly a fifth of the state’s population to use independent medical examiners to investigate deaths reported by law enforcement has passed early tests in the Assembly Public Safety Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Senate Bill 1303 – introduced by Dr. Richard Pan, a Democratic senator from Sacramento – would require non-charter counties with a population of 500,000 or bigger to have an independent medical examiner who reported to county civilian leaders, not the sheriff. Pan said his goal is to “bring our autopsy system up to the modern age” and scrap a system that inevitably prompts concerns about conflicts of interest.
Presently, six such counties with more than 500,000 residents – San Joaquin, Riverside, Contra Costa, Stanislaus, Kern and Sonoma – have a sheriff-coroner who makes final decisions on how to classify medical cases involving fatalities and law enforcement. Three counties with sheriff-coroners may soon pass the 500,000 population threshold as well – Santa Barbara, Tulare and Solano.
The measure could face much stronger opposition going forward. The California State Sheriffs’ Association opposes Pan’s bill. Outside of law enforcement circles, a key issue is whether the bill is found to be a state mandate requiring local governments to bear additional costs, in which case state taxpayers could have to pay the affected counties’ tab.
The proposed legislation was prompted by Dr. Bennet Omalu’s December decision to resign as chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County. Omalu – a national figure because of his pioneering work identifying brain damage in football players – alleged that San Joaquin Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore repeatedly interfered with the work of forensic pathologists by attempting to get them to describe officer-involved killings as accidents, including three times in 2016 alone.
Omalu and fellow former medical examiner Susan Parson provided the county district attorney and supervisors and the media with more than 100 pages of memos in which they contemporaneously complained about pressure brought to bear on them and documented substandard conditions that led to corpses needed for investigations deteriorating and becoming useless.
Sheriff-coroner questions get caught up in larger national debate
The Omalu case caught the attention of the Washington Post’s Radley Balko, one of the nation’s leading authorities on police practices. Balko noted how for more than a century, local governments without independent medical examiners across America have been plagued with allegations about conflicts of interest when investigating claims of police misconduct.
While Sacramento County has an independent medical examiner’s office, the office’s work in a recent fatal police shooting of an unarmed African-American man has led to Pan’s bill – and to Omalu – becoming a part of the larger debate over how law enforcement and the criminal-justice system respond to officer-involved shootings. Stephon Clark, 22, was shot to death on March 18 in the backyard of his grandmother’s Sacramento home by officers responding to reports of vehicle break-ins.
Clark’s family hired Omalu to do an autopsy, which concluded Clark had been shot eight times, with six in his back, prompting activists to claim he had been “executed.” The official autopsy, released after Omalu’s, concluded he had been shot seven times, three times in his back. This discrepancy has been cited by reformers as one more reason to back Pan’s bill.
Investigations into the Clark shooting continue.
Next up for SB1303 is an evaluation of its fiscal impacts on the six counties that it would immediately affect.
Back in San Joaquin County, over the objections of Sheriff-Coroner Moore, supervisors have taken initial steps toward setting up an independent medical examiner.
But counties which like their present systems have a way out if Pan’s bill is enacted: They can seek to become charter counties, which have more autonomy than general-law counties and wouldn’t be covered by SB1303.