Douglas County Sheriff’s Office seeks to launch an in-house coroner program

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Article updated at 10:40 p.m. Feb. 15:

Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday will hear a pitch to create an in-house, civilian-led death investigation program.

County officials and members of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office formed a work group last year to develop plans for the county to start its own CSI unit, according to a memo in the commission’s agenda.


Currently, six trained Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical firefighter-paramedics conduct death scene investigations, according to the memo. Coroner services are provided by Forensic Medical of Kansas City, a subsidiary of a Nashville, Tenn.-based private company. It acquired Frontier Forensics — the company launched by former county coroner Dr. Erik Mitchell — in 2017, according to its website.

A study of LDCFM conducted by Wichita State University last year found that the CSI model impacts availability of emergency medical services. But under state law, the county must have coroner services available.

Forensic Medical provided an estimate for CSI coverage, but the sheriff’s office determined that an in-house program “would be more effective and was preferred,” according to the memo. The proposal in the agenda did not include an estimated cost comparison. LDCFM will continue to provide CSI coverage for a transition period until the in-house program can be developed.

The civilian corps would be under the supervision of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation division, the proposal says.

“The primary goal of the program is to assist the coroner in the determination of cause and manner of death for all unattended deaths in Douglas County,” according to the proposal. “This is accomplished through scene investigation, information gathering, witness interviews, and follow-up activities.”

The plan would include a CSI coordinator, coroner investigator and on-call coverage to ensure 24/7 availability of a death investigator. Forensic Medical death investigators may occasionally fill in when needed. The investigators would be certified through the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators and the Kansas Division of the International Association for Identification.

The memo states: “Coroner investigators work independently from the standard department structure, alongside representatives of other agencies such as law enforcement, district attorneys, hospitals, medical organizations, funeral homes and other coroner jurisdictions, to name a few. Department standard operating procedures (SOPs) guide the specific activities of investigations.”

Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister said he is concerned that the unit could be a conflict of interest. “That’s why we are instituting this in a way to be completely independent of any criminal investigation and it will continue to be a check and balance instead of all the eggs in one basket,” he said.

A budget breakdown shows that startup costs would be about $141,000, which includes a four-body storage unit, forensic van, body bags, personal protection equipment, cameras, iPhones, iPads and more. Ongoing annual costs, which include salaries, would be about $225,000.



As part of the consent agenda — items that are generally considered in one vote, unless a commissioner or member of the public asks to pull it for discussion — the commission will also consider a purchase of 89 body-worn cameras and 28 in-car video systems for the sheriff’s office. The price is about $145,000 for the first year of a five-year contract, according to the agenda.

Work session: American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds

Commissioners will also hold a work session to discuss 139 letters of interest received for federal COVID-19 relief funds. The project submissions totaled more than $76.7 million, and the county has less than one-third of that in unobligated funds, according to the agenda.

The county will begin accepting formal grant proposals in mid-March, according to a presentation in the agenda packet.

The work session will start at 4 p.m. and the regular meeting will start at 5:30 p.m. at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

The meeting will be available via Zoom, and a recording will be uploaded to the county’s YouTube page. See the full meeting agenda at this link.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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