Complaints pour in about Walla Walla County coroner

Problems range from failure to share toxicology reports to threats to arrest officers, emergency services chiefs say.

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WALLA WALLA -- Strained to the breaking point.

That's how three of Walla Walla County's top emergency services officers characterized their agencies' relationship with county Coroner Frank Brown.

"I've been in law enforcement for 40-plus years and I've never, never seen a situation such as this with the coroner in that office," Walla Walla Police Chief Chuck Fulton told county commissioners.

Fulton, county Sheriff Mike Humphreys and Walla Walla Fire Chief Terry Thomas voiced concerns about Brown's performance at the start of last Tuesday's commission meeting. All three commissioners -- Gregg Loney, Greg Tompkins and Perry Dozier -- were in attendance. In a separate interview Monday that included Harvey Crowder, county public health director, all three reiterated their charges.

Humphreys and Fulton said Brown has been uncooperative and confrontational in working with law enforcement officers, even threatening to arrest people for allegedly failing to notify him of a death in what he considered a timely manner.

Humphreys and Fulton said among the most pressing issues were flawed handling of blood and other biological samples and failing to provide toxicology and autopsy reports even after repeated requests

"We've never had these issues before in the past," Humphreys said Monday. "We should be working together. We've tried to resolve the issue, but we've gotten nowhere."

The failure to receive reports, especially toxicology reports, has "been a big issue," Humphreys said.

"Our coroner is the only one in the state of Washington (who) submits blood samples for toxicology to the Washington state crime lab that just uses a medical examiner number and not including a name," Humphreys said. As a result officers can't get that information from the lab unless it comes from the coroner himself.

"That's led to us having to get our own blood and urine samples for toxicology. So we're sending in duplicate samples from Walla Walla County," he said.

Another problem has been in situations where law enforcement officers need to attend an autopsy but don't get notified, Humphreys said.

"We have not been informed in any manner whatsoever in several instances where we could attend autopsies and gather our evidence that's needed in a criminal investigation," he told commissioners. "I do believe on several occasions that this was done purposely." In at least one instance this has forced sheriff's officers to go to the pathologist who performed the autopsy to get a report because Brown failed to send it after numerous requests.

"That isn't the right way to do things. We all have a job to do. We all need to work together to obtain the best results for the citizens," Humphreys said.

In his case, Fulton said his office has been forced to file requests for public records "in order to get the information we need to file our cases. We even have had some issues where some of the paperwork that has come back to us has been altered and we know that because we've gotten the originals from another source.

"It's forced us to file an actual complaint with the prosecutor's office and like I say, in (my) 40-plus years, we've never had to do something like this," Fulton said.

Thomas said he has instructed his staff not to converse with the coroner without his approval or the approval of the deputy chief because of an incident involving Brown attempting to interview two paramedics at a fire station.

The reasons, he told commissioners, are "just to make sure that we know going in exactly what the expectations are on behalf of the coroner and what our exposure and liability is in sharing the information."

Thomas said from his perspective "it's simply been a matter of trust in whether or not we're going to be singled out in regard to whatever particular service or procedure we provide for our community. That's not a fair situation to put our people in, either law enforcement or EMS, and I appreciate the opportunity to share that with you."

All three officials said the team approach that has existed for years between law enforcement, emergency workers and the coroner's office has gone away under Brown's tenure.

"It seems to me that power and control are taking precedent over teamwork and cooperation for the benefit of the citizens," Thomas said.

Brown, who will earn $45,500 this year, is up for re-election, but the officials said the reason they have come forward now is the number of incidents and complaints involving Brown have escalated to the point where they could not remain quiet.

"The number and types of complaints have increased rather dramatically over the past six months," Crowder said.

At Tuesday's meeting, Loney said county commissioners have also received a number of concerns and complaints over the years about Brown. But, apart from budget oversight, commissioners have no authority over the coroner's office.

"It's a level of frustration for us as well," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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