When asked at a public meeting about the investigative protocol for police shootings, Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said, "Is that the best system? Are there better systems? I don't know. I'm open to that conversation."
I suggest there is a better system, and it is time to consider the option of reinstating the office of an elected coroner. When citizens die at the hands of the police, there is obviously a need for a fair and unbiased investigation. Having such investigations handled by other nearby police agencies can look too much like a law enforcement buddy system, reinforced by the fact that in almost every case, the officers involved are exonerated. The public is seldom satisfied even if the decision was proper. Civilian review boards are limited to reviewing decisions already made, rather than carrying out investigations.
Until the 1970s, Sonoma County had an elected coroner, responsible for investigating all unexplained or suspicious deaths in the county. This would be the obvious person to investigate officer-involved deaths. Unfortunately, when the elected office was abolished, the duties of coroner were entrusted to the Sheriff's Office, making it useless for such investigations.
An independent coroner, answerable only to the electorate, with no connection to any police agency, could assure the public that a proper investigation would be carried out.
The trend throughout the state has been to do away with elected coroners, but this can be explained by the lack of an effective constituency agitating for the post to be retained. Voters bought in to the notion that it would be cost-effective to have the sheriff deal with the dead bodies and eliminate a whole department. However, this was a short-sighted point of view, and we are now seeing one of the resulting problems.
Another traditional function of the office was that of public guardian, looking after the interests of minors and people unable to take care of their own affairs. When the elected coroner was abolished, these duties were given to the district attorney, which also presents a potential problem of conflict of interest in the case of someone whose interests are being safeguarded by the public guardian, who is also being charged with a crime.
This change can be made without significant extra cost. The Coroner's Office already has office space at the building that houses the morgue, the only difference being that it would be run by an independent elected coroner rather than the Sheriff's Office. The same duties would be handled by the same number of people, making it revenue neutral. Since state law allows counties a fairly free hand in defining the duties of a coroner, the office could be designed to fit the particular needs of Sonoma County.
Even if the public perceptions about the shortcomings of the present system are misplaced, it is vital that justice not only be done, but also be seen to be done. This runs counter to the culture of law enforcement agencies like the Sheriff's Office, which tend, for good reasons, to be reluctant to share information about ongoing cases. Elected coroners, on the other hand, carry out their work in a much more open and transparent way.
For all of these reasons, I suggest that the office of coroner would be much better filled by an independent elected person, rather than being an arm of the Sheriff's Office as it is now.
(Wendell Joost, a retired funeral director, is a former special deputy coroner who lives in Guerneville.)