Medical examiner takes over elected coroner spot

Death investigations across Kitsap County will now be overseen by the medical examiner rather than an elected coroner, a position that has been phased out.

The transition is aimed at streamlining services and ensuring politics play no role in investigations, officials said.

The change was set in motion by passage by voters of Proposition 1 in 2021 and finalized April 11 by county commissioners.

Chief medical examiner Dr. Lindsey Harle, who had been an employee within the department, now heads the office.

“County death investigations are now run by [Dr. Harle] a board-certified forensic pathologist, a doctor who has specialized training in doing forensic autopsies,” said the last elected coroner, Jeff Wallis. “The way we were running things before we had an elected coroner who then had to utilize contract pathologists to do the autopsies.”

Having in-house personnel provides the county’s medical death investigators better access to the medical examiner, Wallis said. “We have the doctor on hand now so if an investigator is having questions or concerns, they have the doctor right there on the phone,” he said.

The county has nine death investigators. “They go out and do scene investigations,” Wallis said. “They take pictures, interview family members, pull medical records, then do a body examine. They make the initial determination of whether an autopsy needs to be done. If an autopsy is needed it is done by” the medical examiner.

The reorganization eliminated the chief deputy coroner — considered a redundant administrative position — which enabled the office to hire an autopsy technician and help fund Harle’s position, Wallis said. His job as coroner was phased out the first of this year. He is now program supervisor in the office and carries out the same administrative duties.

Interestingly, Wallis was a leading advocate for reorganizing the office and eliminating his coroner position. When running for coroner in 2018 he campaigned to do away with the job. “Skeptics thought I had a hidden agenda. They believed I used it as a campaign platform to get elected,” he said.

Phasing out of the coroner position removes the medical examiner’s office from the political arena. Now, no one in the office needs to run for office. “It’s a great thing,” Wallis said. Harle “is under absolutely no political pressure. All she is focused on is doing scientifically based determinations of cause and manner of death.”

County commissioners appoint the medical examiner as they do all department heads. The restructuring had no impact on the medical examiner’s annual budget, but the changes did improve services, Wallis said, adding annually the office conducts about 900 investigations and 250 autopsies.