These are a couple of articles pertaining to coroners' races this Election Day that I have come across in the last week, the first from Indiana, and the second from Washington:
Why is the coroner an elected position? If you read the first article you would think that all a coroner does is go to schools and talk about drug overdoses to kids. In the second you learn that they have to help families with life insurance claims, and prepare evidence for prosecutors. Is this what a coroner's duties actually entail?
Well then. You may have to vote on November 2nd for your own county coroner. You want to know what coroners actually do, right? I work for one, and have performed more than 2,000 autopsies over the past 13 years as a board-certified forensic pathologist. Here is what I can tell you about elected coroners.
A coroner is a civil service management job, in charge of an office of the local government that oversees death investigation. When someone within the jurisdiction of that local government (usually a county) dies in a sudden, unexpected, or violent way, the coroner's office takes the call. Typically, the person answering the phone has to assess whether the case really should fall under the coroner's jurisdiction, and to decide whether a full death investigation or autopsy is warranted. Some coroners employ independent death investigators who go out to the scene of death and investigate the circumstances, looking for clues about medical history or foul play. Other offices rely on the police to do the on-scene death investigation. If an autopsy is warranted, then the coroner will hire a doctor to perform it. The doctor presents the autopsy results to the coroner, and the coroner decides, based on the autopsy report, what cause and manner of death to put on the death certificate. In order to be successful, a coroner needs—at a minimum—a good understanding of what generally kills people; enough medical training to know when autopsies are necessary; and the empathy and social skills to get along with the bereaved families, law enforcement, district attorneys, public defenders and the press.
How can voters assess whether the candidate for coroner is qualified to perform these duties?
Being a physician does not make you qualified to be a coroner. My ophthalmologist successfully manages a busy office and is a brilliant doctor, but she doesn't know anything about death investigation. I know several board-certified forensic pathologists who are fully qualified to perform autopsies and do death investigations, but have no management experience or training, and shouldn't be put in charge of a large bureaucracy.
Being a coroner requires both of these skill sets combined: an understanding of death investigation, and office management skills. In many states, however, anyone can become coroner if he or she is over the age of 18, and prevails in an election to the position.
So if you have to vote this November for a coroner in your county, I would suggest you look for the following characteristics:
- Someone who understands what death investigation is and how it's conducted.
- Someone with medical background or training.
- Someone who wants to improve the office and bring in more funding and qualified staff—and does not brag about "doing less with more."
- Someone who understands the importance of American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (www.abmdi.org) certification for investigators; American Board of Pathology (www.abpath.org) certification for pathologists; and aims to get the office accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners (www.thename.org)
- Someone who is unbiased and has experience working with grieving families and defense attorneys, as well as with law enforcement and the prosecutor's office. This becomes particularly important in high profile criminal cases, cases of officer-involved shootings or in-custody deaths.
Not all candidates will have these qualifications, and voting decisions can be difficult—but please educate yourself about the candidates, and do not fail to vote. Your vote matters quite a lot on the county level. You never get to know how much you need a competent county coroner until you suffer the unexpected death of a loved one. Few of us have this misfortune, but all of us should worry about who is in charge of the office that is charged with investigating the deaths of our families, friends, and neighbors.
- Someone who is a proven manager of an office with a staff on a similar budget, either as a small business owner or in government work.