Leadership at the morgue

A county morgue evokes the same turn-away reaction as a Mr. Bean film. “The real world is simply too terrible to admit.” Ernest Becker wrote in “The Denial of Death.” “It tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will someday decay and die.”

The denial instinct facilitates abuse, which makes scrutiny and due diligence essential. As NPR in partnership with PBS “Frontline” and ProPublica report, the nation’s death-investigation bureaucracy is dysfunctional, “short of qualified people, squeezed for resources and lacking in oversight.”

Snohomish County no longer elects a coroner (imagine the ghoulish campaign mailers.) The absence of electoral politics, however, doesn’t ensure best practices.

In 2010, under the administration of ex-County Executive Aaron Reardon, a consultant was brought in at the request of the Snohomish County Council to review complaints about poor morale, department management and workplace conduct. Many internal beefs centered on the short-fused behavior of Medical Examiner Dr. Norman Thiersch.

Trouble has a ripple effect. In 2011, an investigator resigned after facing allegations that he pocketed drugs from those who had just gone to their great reward. In 2012, the office decided not to conduct an autopsy on the body of a 7-year old boy, despite pleas by Monroe detectives.

In September, a former death investigator reached a $495,000 settlement with the county over workplace retaliation (the office has an annual budget of $2.1 million.) One Vincent Price-like accusation has Thiersch expressing his displeasure by yanking the heart and lungs out of a cadaver and flinging them back “into the pool of blood within the chest cavity so as to intentionally splash and splatter blood on the plaintiff’s face and torso.” The settlement doesn’t include an admission of wrongdoing.

The unthinkable what if: What if your spouse died unexpectedly, would you feel comfortable with the medical examiner performing the autopsy?

Snohomish County Executive John Lovick has begun the slow, thankless task of ensuring an accountable Medical Examiner’s office. As The Herald’s Rikki King reports, Lovick’s restructuring includes hiring an operations and staff manager. The from-within shuffle doesn’t signal a staff increase, with the elimination of one of the medical-investigator positions.

Lovick’s quiet reforms represent a constructive start, although changing a department’s culture also requires a leadership shift. Time and again, Thiersch’s behavior factors into department outcomes inconsistent with the public interest. No one claims Thiersch is unqualified. But he is accountable to the people. To restore the people’s faith in the medical examiner’s office, Thiersch needs to resign.

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