Grand Jury Finds Potential for Conflict of Interest in Sheriff’s Death in Custody Investigations

Santa Barbara County Main Jail (courtesy)

The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury released a report Monday detailing a potential conflict of interest for death in custody investigations.

The Grand Jury found the potential liability significant and comparable to any law enforcement-involved death. Santa Barbara County had 24 deaths in custody from 2006 to 2020 and another 10 deaths post 2020.

“Mandating the participation of independent criminal investigators and medical examination teams would aid greatly in mitigating this risk,” the report states, “… the cost to achieve this recommendation would be minimal when compared to either the overall budget of the Sheriff’s Office or possible liability caused by lack of transparency and potential conflict of interest.”

The report notes there could be problems with Santa Barbara County’s all-in-one Sheriff/Coroner structure but notes it’s not illegal as California is one of three states that does not mandate the separation of the offices.

However, the report also goes on to state that other California counties have made efforts to lessen the potential for conflicts of interest while Santa Barbara has not. Nearby San Luis Obispo County has the same structure, but the pathology work is outsourced to a firm in San Diego while Ventura’s Medical Examiner (ME) Department has been separate from the Ventura County Sheriff since 1984 and Ventura’s ME employs its own certified pathologists and forensic investigators within the department.

The Santa Barbara County Coroner Bureau is led by the Sheriff/Coroner, currently Bill Brown. The Bureau is managed by a Sergeant and a staff of four Sheriff detectives along with a Forensic Pathologist, Pathology Technicians, and Administrative Support.

To further investigate, the Grand Jury interviewed the individual who submitted the Request for Investigation (RFI), a representative from the Medical Examiner office of Ventura County, and members of the Sheriff/Coroner departments of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. The Jury also visited the Santa Barbara Coroner facility as part of its investigation.

According to the report, deaths in custody (DICs) in all other California counties resulted in autopsies being performed at the discretion of the medical staff. In Santa Barbara autopsies are authorized at the discretion of the Coroner’s Detective Staff in conjunction with medical staff. Additionally, Santa Barbara medical staff and facilities do not meet the recommended standards and certifications set by the Department of Justice while neighboring counties meet these standards.

“The Jury discovered that in SB both Pathology Technicians are retired Law Enforcement Officers, and, while they have had the required training to perform their jobs, there is no succession plan to fill those positions when needed,” the report states.

To prevent conflict of interest, other counties collaborate on DIC investigations or request independent reviews/medical services for those cases. Santa Barbara does not seek the assistance of other counties or independent assistance.

“The Jury was unable to uncover any instances where the Coroner staff had requested an independent investigative or medical exam from an outside source,” the report states.

The Grand Jury recommends the Sheriff/Coroner’s office should request another Santa Barbara County agency to conduct either an independent or parallel investigation for all DICs and this could be implemented immediately at a low cost. Additionally, all DIC pathology investigations shall be conducted using an independent medical examination team and should be implemented no later than the end of December 2024.

The final recommendation is the Sheriff/Coroner should develop and implement a succession plan for pathology technicians (including identification of potential candidates and ensuring training budget is available) following current California Department of Health standards, with a specific timeline by the end of September 2024.

The full report can be read here.

Edhat Staff

Written by Edhat Staff

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  1. The seeming lack of concern for the Coroner’s department and the intertwining and lack of independence of the department are a big reason I voted against Brown — twice that I recall, maybe thrice.

    Experience and institutional memory are goods, but can be outweighed by complacency and worse. I understand that there is no crisis in the department and if one was brewing I think news of it would get out.
    But he’s really a politician and he’s been in office a while.
    “Bill Brown has served as Santa Barbara County’s Sheriff-Coroner since January 9, 2007. He was first elected on November 7, 2006, and re-elected to a second term in June, 2010, to a third term in June, 2014, to a fourth term in June, 2018, and to his present fifth term in June, 2022.”

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