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Kitsap County voters approving switch to medical examiner, ending coroner's tenure — as promised

The exterior of the Kitsap County Coroner's Office building.
Jeff Wallis
Kitsap County Coroner
The Kitsap County Coroner's Office in Bremerton.

So far, nearly 65 percent of Kitsap County voters favor a switch from a coroner system to a medical examiner system. That means their coroner will likely be out of a job, something he campaigned for when he was elected in 2018.

Coroner Jeff Wallis says it’s good news that his job is going away on Jan. 1, 2023. Since taking office, Wallis has juggled his day job as a firefighter along with countywide death investigations.

Most counties in Washington have elected officials like Wallis in charge of investigating sudden or unusual deaths — regardless of their professional backgrounds and with little oversight. Now, voters are making it official: Kitsap will become only the seventh county to rely on a highly trained medical examiner.

“It professionalizes the operation of the office,” he told KNKX. “There will be a doctor in the office that is vetting the operating procedures.”

Starting in 2023 that will be Dr. Lindsey Harle, who was hired in August 2020 in anticipation of the change. That means the office is already functioning like a medical examiner’s office in many ways. Harle has not only been performing autopsies for Kitsap, but also Mason and Jefferson counties on a contract basis.

The medical examiner will continue managing the same $1.5 million budget. Wallis said by the end of this year, his office will have handled roughly 700 investigations and completed about 300 autopsies. He says that’s up from years past, primarily due to circumstances surrounding the pandemic.

Wallis says the time is right to make the switch. Kitsap County’s population has grown beyond the threshold laid out in state law for coroner counties. He says the investment is cost effective over the long term, saving the county money. And coroner counties continue to struggle to find qualified doctors to perform their autopsies.

“There’s an overwhelming lack of available forensic pathologists,” he said. “So being able to get one that we could not only recruit, but retain, would just make it an extremely valuable commodity for us but for our neighbors too.”

Last year, KNKX reported an in-depth series on Washington state’s system of death investigation. It’s a patchwork with offices statewide struggling with a lack of funding, even the six counties — soon to be seven — with appointed medical examiners. Those include King and Pierce counties.

Elected coroners in the remaining counties are left cobbling together whatever space they can find for performing exams — typically local funeral homes.

Coroners in the state’s smallest counties are also prosecutors, who are tasked with juggling two jobs that are supposed to remain independent from one another.

All of the autopsies in those coroner counties fall to just a few traveling forensic pathologists. They are constantly crisscrossing the state, hauling their own equipment to substandard facilities, where the person in charge may or may not have collected enough information to put their work in context to accurately determine how someone might have died.

And there’s no clear oversight for coroners — officials with wide-ranging experience, and sometimes no relevant experience at all.

In some cases, that leaves counties unable to address alleged misconduct by their elected coroner.

Leaders at the state level are working to reform the system. Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law that phases out prosecutor-coroners in the state’s smallest counties. It also establishes stricter training and certification requirements for coroner and medical examiner offices statewide. And all offices must be accredited by the national or international trade associations by July 2025 and maintain their accreditation in perpetuity.

But more reforms are brewing. The King County Medical Society is lobbying for uniform death investigations statewide. If it gains traction, Washington could become one of only a handful of states in the country to standardize death investigations this way.

In the meantime, Kitsap County will continue its work toward transitioning to a medical examiner system. Wallis will spend his final year in office hiring an office manager and building administrative systems. He says there’s more work to do to improve staffing and facilities. But, he says, this is a big win for Kitsap County.

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.