Orange County Commentary : Editorials : Sheriff-Coroner Conflict

Slowly, but surely, the wisdom of maintaining the separate functions of the sheriff and coroner in a combined office is being questioned and criticized. And with good reason.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors, at the urging of Supervisor Bruce Nestande, several months ago ordered a county study, and asked the county grand jury to make one of its own, on the question of whether there is an inherent conflict of interest when the coroner looks into deaths involving county jail facilities or sheriff's deputies.

The call for the studies was prompted by several recent cases, one involving a suicide at the Orange County Jail and another the death of a woman killed by a sheriff's bullet in a shoot-out prompted by a dispute over a traffic ticket. The cases raised questions about the propriety of the coroner's determining the cause of death of an inmate who was in the custody of the sheriff (who runs the jail operation), or someone killed by a sheriff's deputy.

Then Superior Court Judge Richard Beacom, who at the time was presiding judge, called for separation of the functions. Now Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) has introduced legislation that would force the separation of the sheriff-coroner functions in all counties with populations over 200,000. It sounds like broad coverage, and would include nine counties, but it would apply primarily to Orange County because this is the only major urban county in the state that still combines the sheriff-coroner duties into one elected post.

Ferguson omitted smaller counties because it would be too expensive for most of them to run separate operations. His bill still would require their boards of supervisors to hire independent pathologists to investigate any jail deaths or deaths involving law enforcement officials.

We agree with Ferguson that the need to separate the functions is self-evident. That belief has nothing to do with the incumbent Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates, his ability to conduct impartial investigations or his performance in either post. It has to do with the system.

We opposed the county board's action when it combined the posts in 1970 and still do for the same reasons--consolidation poses too great a potential conflict of interest. In fact, even when the functions are performed within the strictest letter of the law, they create the appearance of a conflict when the sheriff seems to be investigating himself. In either case, public confidence is eroded and public suspicion raised.

That can be avoided by separating the Orange County sheriff-coroner post before the next election in 1986 and giving the coroner's job to a medical professional who has no law-enforcement connections.

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