Lesson 15: Invest your investigators with authority and power at the death scene.

The last lesson emphasized the importance of the work of the medical examiner investigator. We must rely heavily on these individuals because so much of what we learn as forensic pathologists comes from the history and the death scene—not the autopsy. Visiting death scenes is time consuming, so it only makes sense to allow investigators to become our eyes and ears at the death scene rather than personally visiting it (more on that later).

It is right and necessary that we place reliance and heavy responsibility on those who serve as medical examiner investigators. Alternatively, it is also right that they should rely on us to provide them with support when they investigate for us.

Law enforcement agencies are accustomed to being in charge at the death scene. They provide the security at the scene, and they have a societal mandate to learn what happened so that they can make an arrest or arrests. Consequently, it is only natural for police officers to act like the “big dog,” telling all who are present who can come and go, who has access to the body, and who has access to the information about the crime.

Shortly after I arrived in Kansas City, police officers were not accustomed to allowing medical examiner investigators access to very much. The police officers did not consider the job of the medical examiner investigator as important as their job. The medical examiner investigator was not afforded the respect that was his due, in spite of the fact that the law gives jurisdiction of the body and the items associated with the body to the medical examiner.

On the other hand, law enforcement officials considered my job and title as important. They could not do their job adequately if I did not do a good job, particularly in cases where the cause of death was at issue. Also, the title, doctor, carries a sense of mystique and awe. I noted this with amazement a few days after graduating from medical school. Previously, before graduation, nurses, patients and other personnel treated me with disdain. Once I earned the title of doctor, that disdain was replaced with respect and even awe. This is no different with police officers. The doctor is held in high respect.

Having that level of respect may have both advantages and disadvantages. Certainly, the advantage of having the important title allows one privileges not granted to others without it.

If you, as a chief medical examiner, want to do a good job, you will allow the medical examiner investigators who work with you the benefit of that authority.

How is this done?

When my investigators were treated disdainfully at first, I instructed them not to enter into any dispute at the crime scene. I told them to write down the name of the officer and his badge number and report the affront to me. Later, I communicated to the police officer’s supervisors how offended I was that my investigator was treated poorly.

The poor treatment happened once, maybe twice. Then it never happened again. Until the time I left my position, medical examiner investigators in my office never had any problem with access to the body at the crime scene. In fact, we entered into a joint agreement with the police department about our respective roles at the scene. This document, in my opinion, is an example of how two agencies should optimally cooperate.

The medical examiner investigator and others who work with him or her should understand that he or she is an extension of the chief. It should be as if the chief medical examiner were at the crime scene. You as a chief should demand for your investigator the same kind of respect you demand for yourself. Your job is too important, and that makes their job too important also. Why should you deprive yourself of the best quality of information and the best access to it?

The role of the medical examiner investigator at the crime scene is every bit as important as that of the law enforcement officer. Justice begins with the death investigation and consequently with the medical examiner investigator. Injustice flourishes when the medical examiner investigator is not allowed to do the job effectively.