About the only people not bothered by the seriously subpar conditions found at the county Coroner’s Office, it seems, are the dead ones taken there to determine how they got that way. Otherwise, the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury found in its recent report, the Coroner’s Office is woefully deficient and needs a major overhaul from stem to stern. The report contained no price tag for how much the improvements would cost; given how extensive the deficiencies are, the price will be considerable.
Every year, slightly fewer than 3,000 people die in Santa Barbara County; nearly half require some investigation to determine cause. Of those, 150 trigger an autopsy. The coroner first occupied the current digs near the County Jail sometime after 1987, when the county supervisors authorized the creation of a stand-alone facility. (Like the County Jail, the Coroner’s Office is a subset of the Sheriff’s Department.) The Grand Jury could find no evidence of building permits ever being sought — let alone obtained — and the facility was built with inmate labor for less than $100,000.
According to the report, there are three structures, and space has been sliced, diced, and jury-rigged over time. The main building is cut in two, and the corridor between them runs past the refrigerator holding up to 16 bodies. Because the ventilation system is more than 25 years old, the report found, the arrangement of these two rooms exposes the entire work environment to “noxious odors and possibly airborne contaminants.” The Grand Jury also concluded that the ventilation system lacks a filtration system capable of trapping airborne pathogens, meaning it could pose a health risk to employees. In addition, the air conditioning system in the autopsy room itself is not strong enough to keep the room comfortably cool on warm days.
The forensic examiner who conducts the autopsies themselves needs a trained full-time assistant, the report concluded; instead, retired employees fill in when there’s a need. The report also faulted the reliance upon obsolete recording equipment. Rather than digital equipment, the forensic examiner speaks into an old-fashioned tape recorder that hangs from the ceiling. The outside of the facility is even worse, according to the report, an abundance “of weeds, untended shrubs, bushes, and ground rodents.”
The Grand Jury recommended that the County Board of Supervisors invest in the infrastructure upgrade needed to transform the office into a facility capable of being accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners. The timing of the report is politically striking. The current coroner, Sergeant Sandra Brown, has announced she intends to run against incumbent Sheriff Bill Brown (no relation) next year. Since her announcement, she has been put on notice she can make no public statements on behalf of the department. As far as Sheriff Brown, his spokesperson said he intends to provide a detailed response to the report later, but in the meantime appreciates very much the energy and focus the Grand Jury dedicated to the office.