Santa Barbara Grand Jury Looks to De-hyphenate Sheriff-Coroner

Report Argues That the Separation Would Eliminate the Potential for Conflicts of Interest.

The Santa Barbara Grand Jury issued a report calling for the removal of the Coroner’s Bureau from the jurisdiction purview of the county Sheriff’s Office, under whose auspices it has functioned since 1947. The Grand Jury, which has issued four reports critical of the coroner’s infrastructure in the past 10 years, argued the separation would eliminate the potential for conflicts of interest. It also argued that the new bureau, once separated, would be required to operate under a higher level of technical standards and requirements than now apply.

In previous reports, the grand juries have faulted the coroner’s digs as being too small, improvised, and hodgepodge to be operated in as safe a manner as it should. For example, the Grand Jury said the new ventilation system — installed at the recommendation of a prior grand jury — lacks the safeguards necessary to ensure no airborne pathogens from bodies being worked upon or any chemicals used being released into the atmosphere. Likewise, it found that the offices were too small and there was only one autopsy room and no isolation room for high-risk cases. 

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In addition, it found that the residue from autopsies was drained into a sink and discharged into the sewage system. Instead, the jury argued, it should be trapped and segregated as a biological hazardous waste — and likewise for the soap and water used to clean off the surgical devices, which the jury found require a higher degree of sterilization.

Lieutenant Erik Raney noted that the air-filtration unit — which the jury found sucks the cooler air provided by the morgue’s air-conditioning unit and emits it outdoors — contains a HEPA filtration system to prevent the spread of noxious chemicals. Other than that, Raney said, the department would prepare a more detailed response to all of the points raised by the Grand Jury at a later date. 

Every year, about 3,000 people die within Santa Barbara County, about half of whom succumb to natural causes. The Coroner’s Bureau conducts investigations into about 700-800 deaths a year and performs autopsies on about 150. In all but 17 counties, the sheriff and coroner are one and the same. If that were changed as the Grand Jury has suggested, the Grand Jury has recommended it happen at the end of Sheriff Bill Brown’s term of office. 

In recent years, there’s been growing interest to separate the two offices in reduce the potential for conflicts of interest. A bill to that effect was sent to then Governor Jerry Brown, who vetoed it. 

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