MOUNT VERNON — Knox County Coroner Dr. Jennifer Ogle has brought change to the coroner’s office since she took office Jan. 1. Ogle said she is in the process of hiring and training four medicolegal death investigators who will assist her with many of the duties of her office.
“The investigators will come with me to all of these scenes to assist with collecting evidence, talking to family, interviewing anyone who has seen the decedent in the past 24 hours, taking photographs, completing a physical exam of the body and taking a liver temperature, and other tasks, including making a lot of phone calls and arrangements,” Ogle explained.
She said only one of the four investigators is fully trained at this point, and has already accompanied Ogle to several death investigations.
Last year in Knox County, there were 58 coroner’s cases, according to Ogle.
Because the coroner must be able to respond to a sudden death at any time, Ogle said having the investigators on staff will quicken response times if she happens to be out of the county when the coroner’s office is dispatched to the scene of a fatality.
Ogle said the investigators, once fully trained, will be able to begin collecting information and processing a scene before she arrives.
“I could have them start that process while I am on my way,” she said.
Speeding up the response time of the coroner’s office to a death is one of her top priorities, according to Ogle.
“In the past, response time has been an issue,” she said. “This affects the availability and efficiency of emergency personnel and law enforcement throughout Knox County because they have to wait at the scene until the coroner arrives.”
Although the investigators will be able to work independently, Ogle said the idea behind the new employees is not to provide a way for her to attend fewer death scenes. However, they will have the legal right to investigate with the same authority as Ogle during an investigation.
“They can work on their own with my blessing, and in a big city that’s how it works,” she said.
Ogle said most counties began using coroner’s investigators years ago, and Knox County is slow in catching up with the more modern way of conducting death investigations.
“Knox County was very much behind the times in the way we were doing things and we were not doing an adequate job before,” she said. “Contemporary and effective coroner’s offices utilize the services of trained death investigators.
“This is clearly the standard,” she added. “Most counties our size and even counties half our size have death investigators.”
According to Ogle, advances in technology and forensic science mean the death investigation process is now more complex and time consuming. She said having two people working on an investigation instead of one means these investigations will be conducted more quickly and more accurately because so much of the evidence collected is time sensitive.
Ogle said she selected the investigators herself, based on their capabilities, interest in the field and varied backgrounds.
“When I became coroner I started conversations with people I knew and respected about how I planned to set up this office,” she said. “One had a military background, one is a parole officer with a criminal justice background, and two are nurses. I tried to find some varied backgrounds.”
When they begin working, the investigators will all have been trained at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, which Ogle said has one of the most prominent training facilities for medicolegal death investigators in the country. She said she believes the weeklong training costs around $800 a person, and will be covered by the budget of her office.
The investigators will be paid per case, from the coroner’s budget. Ogle said the cost for the training and compensation of the investigators will be almost equal to the amount of budget savings she has achieved by reducing the cost of transporting the deceased to Licking County for autopsies.
In the past, ambulance companies performed this service. Earlier this year, Ogle put the contract for transportation out for bid, and a funeral home now transports for a much lower fee. Ogle said this saves the county about $200 per case.
“By cutting the spending for transportation by about $200 per case, or around $11,000 a year, the cost of the investigators is essentially taken care of and will not add to the taxpayers’ burden,” Ogle said.
She said because another physician does not have to be paid to be on call every time she leaves the county, additional spending will be cut from the coroner’s budget. Ogle said in the past, another doctor had to be paid as a deputy coroner for any time spent on call, even if his or her services were not needed.
Having death investigators on call will eliminate this cost, said Ogle, because they are paid only for cases they work on. A pager will be kept in the possession of the investigator on call.
She said the investigators will be hired officially in the near future, once they have completed their classroom training as well as on-the-job training.
The hiring process for the investigators is different than the application, interview and vetting process required for other county positions. Ogle said the decisions regarding whom to hire are hers alone, according to the Ohio Revised Code.
“Being an elected official, I can appoint people to these positions as long as it is within my budget,” she said.
Ogle said she is looking forward to working with law enforcement in Knox County, and believes the additional investigative capabilities her office will gain with the hiring of more personnel will benefit the citizens of the county.
“In the past in our county, much of the work of a death investigation has been done by law enforcement,” she said. “This can create a serious conflict of interest in situations such as deaths in custody and officer shootings. For the ethical and fiscal peace of mind for Knox County, it would be wise to move away from that model.”
Ogle said the coroner being an elected, autonomous position is absolutely critical. She believes taking on more of the investigative duties in coroner’s cases is her responsibility.
“There must be checks and balances as well as cooperation between the coroner’s office and law enforcement,” she said. “Continuing to ask law enforcement to perform duties charged to the coroner’s office is no longer a viable option.”
Ogle said she understands bringing sweeping change to the coroner’s office will be well received by some, and will meet with resistance from others. She feels the work she is investing now will bring benefits to the county.
“I believe that the changes I have made have already made a positive impact on our county,” she said.