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Push on to separate coroners from law enforcement in California

The Golden State is currently one of only three states that allow counties to combine the offices of coroner and sheriff.

(CN) — A new bill introduced in the California Assembly this week would separate coroner offices from sheriff's departments.

State law places, by default, a county's coroner or medical examiner's office inside its sheriff's department, though the law also allows a county board of supervisors to separate the two entities. Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco counties all have coroners that are independent from law enforcement. But in the vast majority of the state, including three of its five biggest counties — Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino — the office is part the sheriff's department.

Activists call this a potential conflict of interest, particularly when a coroner is tasked with investigating a death at the hands of law enforcement.

"We need police reform and full transparency in all processes," said the Assembly Bill 1608's co-author, Assemblyman Mike Gipson, in a statement. "This bill would ensure that death investigations are conducted objectively, reducing any perception that the investigative process could be influenced by other segments of the criminal justice system."

One of the impetuses behind the proposal is the 2020 death of Angelo Quinto, a 30-year-old Navy veteran living in Antioch, a city 45 miles east of San Francisco. Quinto died in a hospital three days after an Antioch police officer knelt on his neck for five minutes.

More than eight months after Quinto's death, the Contra Costa County coroner, a division of the sheriff's department, ruled the death an accident and listed the cause of death as "excited delirium." The family says the ruling, handed down by a 15-member jury after a quasi-judicial inquiry, was the result of a biased process.

"Not only did they keep the truth from us, they blatantly lied to us," said Bella Quinto, Angelo's sister. "It was a coverup. It was all self-preservation on their part."

The family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Antioch.

Quinto's death has already inspired two bills, both by Gipson and signed into law in 2021, which banned law enforcement in California from using chokeholds and restraints that could cause positional asphyxia. Governor Gavin Newsom signed two other big police reform bills last year: Senate Bill 2, which creates a state commission to investigate and fire police officers for misconduct; and Senate Bill 16, which increases transparency over law enforcement misconduct records.

Sheriff's departments are unique in California because sheriffs are elected officials. That gives them their own base of support, and at times shields them from the kind of oversight that, say, a police chief has with a police commission appointed by a mayor.

According to the ACLU's Melanie Ochoa, sheriff's departments have a pattern of "refusing to be transparent or accountable, particularly when sheriff's deputies commit misconduct." AB 1608, she said, "is one of many steps that are needed to create more oversight and accountability for sheriffs and their department."

Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the California State Sheriff's Association, said that while his union hasn't formally taken a position on the bill yet, he had some concerns about the proposal.

"This basically gets rid of the counties' ability to combine the offices," Salzillo said. "Ostensibly, you’d have a separate coroner’s office. We presume that would impose a pretty significant cost on the counties."

California is one of only three states in the country that allows the duties of sheriff and coroner to be combined.

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