A photo of the exterior of the Riverside County Administrative Building where the Riverside County Board of Supervisors meet.
A photo of the Riverside County Administrative Building where the Riverside County Board of Supervisors meets. (Alicia Ramirez/TN News)

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors last week approved a pair of suggestions presented following an evaluation into the feasibility of separating the Offices of the Coroner and the Public Administrator from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

“Our executive team did a really thorough job, much more thorough than I was expecting, appraising the issues that historically, you know, point out why the departments were consolidated, and they are valid reasons,” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said. “I’m not completely on board that what the executive office is recommending is the best path, but I’m not sure I know of a better path just yet.”

The first suggestion was for the county to contract out the autopsies for both in-custody and use-of-force deaths involving the sheriff’s department to the San Diego and San Bernardino sheriff’s departments.

“I’m not certain that the separation that was requested of the coroner and the sheriff’s department, at this point in time, gives us a better result than the refinements and efforts and changes in policies that are being recommended today or have been recommended in the last couple of years that have been implemented,” Board Chair Chuck Washington said. “But we need to be more transparent, we need to find better ways to reassure the public that we are doing the best we can to serve and protect, protect and serve.”

But those in the audience felt this move didn’t do enough to open up the process and remove it from the purview of law enforcement — whether local or not.

“The goal of this whole thing was to increase public confidence and transparency, and if you have one law enforcement agency overseeing another one, we know that very often, the officers will close ranks when there might be a problem,” Rabbi Suzanne Singer said. “So that seems to be really not a way to provide more transparency or confidence in the process.”

The second suggestion involved working with the sheriff’s department to create a family liaison program with a goal of providing support and guidance as family members navigate the process throughout the investigation following their loved one’s death.

“The reason I can support this right now is because I like…how we’re going to create a program to help some of these families, and I think that’s moving in the right direction,” Supervisor Yxstian Gutierrez said. “And I think we should have something like that, and then continue to have more conversations with the groups, the people that came to speak.”

And while most who spoke at the meeting were in favor of creating a family liaison program, others felt that running it through the sheriff’s department was not in the best interest of those impacted.

“It’s a slap in the face to a family who lost a loved one, failed to get a report in a timely manner, knows nothing about their loved one’s final hours, death or any of that to now go and talk to the people they feel [are] responsible,” Vonya Quarles, a Moreno Valley resident and member of the Sheriff’s Accountability Coalition, said. “I think the families deserve much more than that.”

Stay up to date with the latest from The Record.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter today!

Ahead of the vote, the board heard from former Supervisor Bob Buster, who spoke to the reason why the board voted in 1996 to consolidate the duties of the two departments.

“I don’t think there had been adequate investment in just even the bare physical facilities for the coroner at that time,” he said. “I don’t know why the coroners had not more actively campaigned for better funding and newer facilities, but it became a real problem, and I recall myself raising this issue of the potential conflict with officer-involved investigations and autopsy with officer-involved shootings at the time, but no one was really paying attention to it, and so that merger happened.”

But, with everything that has happened in the intervening years, Buster said separating the two departments would only serve to benefit the county.

“I think it can only redound to this board’s benefit,” he said. “And I think it is a kind of a bellwether for this county, to show that you can get on top of major issues and begin to address them.”

Speakers also questioned the depth of the report, which can be read in full here, which they felt did not include the data needed to adequately support the board’s decision.

“In this report, there’s some good things I see like talking about the importance of public confidence, looking at extensive evaluations of the relationship between the sheriff’s and the coroner’s, of course support for family members, the liaison support for family members, is important,” Mary Valedmar, a member of the Sheriff’s Accountability Coalition, said. “But one of the striking things that I noticed about this report is that there’s very little data.”

In addition to outsourcing autopsies for in-custody and use-of-force deaths and working with the sheriff’s department to create a family liaison program, the board also included language that would require the sheriff’s department to provide annual updates to the board about how well information is being shared between the sheriff’s department, those handling the autopsies and the public.

The day after the board’s meeting, the coalition held a press conference on the steps of the Riverside County Administrative Center calling for an independent cost-benefit analysis of separating the office of the coroner from the sheriff’s department as well as more oversight of the department as a whole.

“It’s hard to call it a study given that there was no actual data analysis or even number crunching that occurred in it,” Luis Nolasco, senior community engagement and policy advocate for the ACLU of Southern California, said in an interview following the event. “It was, you know, in short, like a recap of just the policies…and with some overhead numbers in terms of the department costs and stuff like that, so it wasn’t the actual thorough study that we were expecting.”

But while there was disappointment that the supervisors did not go far enough with Tuesday’s actions, there was hope that a dialogue had at least been started.

“At the very least, you know, we are glad to see that at least the county is finally recognizing this real problem,” Nolasco said. “And that, you know, I think, they opened the door to continue having conversations with us and the broader public about this issue.”

A full recording of the meeting can be found here on the county’s website.

TN News is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet providing Riverside County with high-quality journalism free of charge. We’re able to do this because of the generous donations of supporters like you!

Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.