Significant under-staffing in the Los Angeles County coroner’s office has led to a “sobering” backlog in toxicology and other testing that could threaten its accreditation by the end of the year, according to a civil grand jury report released last Friday.
According to the report, problems in the county Department of the Medical Examiner-Coroner “can be attributed to too few budgeted positions, including direct and indirect support personnel, worker fatigue and burnout and to salary constraints that inhibit recruitment and retention of qualified professionals.”
The report, which faults the Board of Supervisors for providing “inadequate resources to support” the office, echoes concerns raised by former county coroner Mark Fajardo, who announced his resignation in March to return to the coroner’s job in Riverside County. Fajardo said under-staffing in the department left it unable to properly do its job.
According to the grand jury report, staffing shortages at the coroner’s office have left it routinely unable to meet the 90-day standard for completing cases. Under-staffing has also caused a backlog in blood-alcohol testing and has prompted the Forensic Toxicology unit to suspend operations such as gunshot- residue testing and officer-involved shooting case reviews. It has also led to delays in toxicology testing and the use of less definitive and “more elementary” testing procedures.
“Additional pressure is added to this stressful environment by (Board of Supervisors) requests averaging 16 times per month for immediate processing of selected cases, which negatively impacts (coroner’s office) internal prioritization of investigations,” according to the report.
The report calls on the county to immediately increase staffing by 12 full-time investigators, two forensic pathologists and seven toxicologists — just to reduce the chances of the agency losing its accreditation and affecting its credibility in criminal cases. But to meet median staffing standards for the county’s population, the county should also hire one more full-time investigator, seven more full-time forensic pathologists and 15 toxicologists.
It also calls for salary increases and other incentives to bolster recruitment and retention.
The report notes that the department has an average of more than 400 bodies stored in its crypt.
“The volume of cases for which (the coroner’s office) is responsible overwhelms a staff that is significantly smaller than recommended in standards set by (the National Association of Medical Examiners),” according to the report. “The budget provided to (the office) has been flat in the past two fiscal years and the CEO’s recent proposed budget reduces the level of funding for FY 2016-2017.”