Police Reform Movement Sparks New Interest in Dividing Coroner and Sheriff Functions in Some California Counties | KCET
Police Reform Movement Sparks New Interest in Dividing Coroner and Sheriff Functions in Some California Counties
When Kern County agreed to pay $3.4 million to the family of a Bakersfield man who died during a violent struggle with deputies trying to arrest him, Sheriff Donny Youngblood suggested he no longer needed to continue his dual role as the region’s coroner.
"They can remove 'coroner' from my title tomorrow," Youngblood told reporters at the time. "I’ve attempted to do it. I don’t really care."
Four years later, Youngblood retains his title as Sheriff-Coroner, overseeing Kern’s deputies and the medical examiner’s operations. For some civil rights attorneys, police reformers and a Sacramento Democrat, Youngblood’s two jobs are a conflict of interest, especially when deputies are under investigation in deaths.
Following demands for law enforcement reform since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, calls to separate coroner’s operations from sheriff’s department management throughout California are again being suggested just two years after former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have required seven large counties to do so.
"There is absolutely a conflict to have the sheriff be the coroner, especially when the coroner is doing an autopsy and making judgments and pronouncements with respect to the cause of death of an individual," said attorney David Cohn, who represented the family of Bakersfield resident David Silva, who died in a controversial struggle with Kern County deputies in 2013.
In a new climate and with a new governor, State Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento said he might consider a third try at passing a bill to separate coroner and sheriff functions. Pan continues to believe it is necessary to achieve "justice and fairness."
"This is a problem," Pan said. "We really do need to be sure that people can trust the report from the autopsy, that people view that as an objective report."
Already, San Joaquin County is in the process of creating a medical examiner’s office separate from its sheriff’s functions following allegations that the sheriff interfered in findings. Largely populated counties like Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara and San Francisco already have independent coroner’s offices, but small counties often combine the functions because of cost.
Still, counties including Riverside and Orange have joint departments.
"We really do need to ensure we have independent medical examiners who truly are independent," Pan said.
Silva’s brother, Chris Silva, said he agreed to settle his family’s case to provide guaranteed money to provide for his brother’s four children. But, he said, he wishes the case had gone to trial so the public could have heard testimony of what happened.
Chris Silva speaks regularly about his brother’s death and writes online. Recently, he has taken part in Black Lives Matter rallies following the death of George Floyd, who died as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes last month.
"It’s almost exactly the same thing," he said. "I try not to see the whole video. I try to stay away from video. It shows you the power of video. It shows you the power of truth."
Seven deputies and two California Highway Patrol officers battled Silva for nearly 20 minutes on May 7, 2013, when he was reported sleeping on a sidewalk across the street from a hospital. Witnesses who recorded the confrontation on their cellphones said he was beaten with batons, hogtied and placed in a series of holds as he lay face down on the ground. A police dog bit him.
"We know from the basic investigation that took place in the Silva case that there was an initial confrontation with a sheriff’s deputy, ultimately other law enforcement arrived on the scene, he’s essentially not only restrained, he is hobbled and then he goes into cardiac arrest and subsequently dies," Cohn said.
Deputies confiscated the witnesses’ cellphones and allegedly deleted what they had recorded.
The county’s autopsy – conducted by outside pathologists hired by the county -- declared Silva’s death an accident, a result of high-blood pressure, obesity, alcoholism and heart disease that caused his heart to fail during the scuffle.
The real cause of death, the family’s lawsuit charged, was asphyxia.
"The coroner/sheriff has every motive to come up with a theory that takes away from the excessive force that is used on a person that causes a person to become asphyxiated," Cohn said.
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Following its investigation, the Kern County District Attorney’s Office rejected filing criminal charges against the involved officers, saying they used reasonable force to subdue the combative man. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said there was insufficient evidence to file a civil rights case.
But during a deposition for the civil case filed on behalf of Silva’s family and children, the pathologist who conducted the county autopsy said the Sheriff’s Department had not told him about the struggle or that Silva was prone on his stomach on the ground. The sheriff, he said, had told him the death did not involve foul play. If investigators had provided more information, he said he might have reached a different conclusion, said Neil Gehlawat, another attorney for Silva’s family.
"I don’t think many people know that when it’s a sheriff-coroner, it’s the sheriff that is providing factual detail to the pathologist," Gehlawat said.
In 2017, two San Joaquin County pathologists, including famed pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who became well-known for discovering CTE in NFL players, alleged former Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore interfered with their work to protect his deputies.
Following the allegations, a county audit conducted by Washington D.C. medical examiner Dr. Roger Mitchell, found that some "causes of death" listed on reports for in-custody deaths did not accurately reflect what the medical examiners had determined.
"In cases where there was a direct physical altercation with law enforcement, the forensic pathologist indicated the manner as homicide," Mitchell wrote in his audit. "The ultimate coroner manner of death was certified as ‘accident’ for the aforementioned cases."
Mitchell recommended that the county create a separate medical examiner’s office to maintain objectivity and the public’s trust, “particularly when investigating deaths in the custody of law enforcement or while in jail/prison.”
The audit prompted San Joaquin County supervisors voted last year to divide the offices, but it has yet to occur. Patrick Withrow is still Sheriff-Coroner. A department spokeswoman said the breakup had been scheduled for this summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the process.
Pan, who earlier had proposed an unsuccessful bill to simply keep law enforcement officers out of the examination room as pathologists performed their work in officer-involved death cases, sponsored SB 1303 in 2018 to divide coroner and sheriff functions following the San Joaquin allegations. The pediatrician turned politician’s bill would have required counties with populations larger than 500,000 to establish a medical examiner’s office separate from the sheriff’s office or – at minimum – create a policy to refer death investigations with potential conflicts – such as those that occurred in jail or during arrests -- to another county.
Although it passed through the legislature, Brown vetoed the bill, saying "this decision is best left to the discretion of local elected officials who are in the best position to determine how their county offices are organized."
"We did have good support from the pathologist and medical community," Pan said. "It would be helpful to have more support from the civil rights community."
Cases and controversies keep coming. In Alameda County, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced in March that she agreed with her office’s investigation that said Pleasanton police officers acted with reasonable force during a fight that resulted when they tried to arrest 38-year-old Jacob Bauer on Aug. 1, 2018.
Bauer, who had acted erratically in a supermarket, tossing soda bottles onto the floor and throwing a shopping cart, was confronted by officers as he walked away. One officer’s body camera showed his partner talking calmly with Bauer until he moved to arrest him for vandalism. Bauer struggled and yelled for President Donald Trump to help him during a fracas that lasted more than 20 minutes. Officers shot him twice with a Taser, used restraints, struck him with batons and fists, placed him in a leg wrap and a spit mask, and tied him to an ambulance gurney. Bauer, who weighed 274 pounds, wasn’t breathing by the time he was placed in an ambulance and was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The county’s autopsy said Bauer died from the ingestion of a toxic amount of methamphetamine. An independent autopsy conducted for Bauer’s family, however, concluded he died from asphyxiation, and that the methamphetamine was only a contributing factor.
Although there is no evidence Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern played any role in the case involving the Pleasanton officers, Ahern holds the title of coroner.
"I don’t know that we could say there is a conflict, but in the real world, there really is," said Gary Gwillliam, an Oakland attorney representing Bauer’s family in their lawsuit against Pleasanton. "These law enforcement people all stick together."
Gwilliam said proper law enforcement reform should include "truly independent autopsies conducted by people who are not related to law enforcement" when officers are under investigation.
"They are all friends and they are all working together," Gwilliam said. "The coroner and this sheriff are doing all they can do to defend law enforcement in Pleasanton."
Youngblood could not be reached for an interview.
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