Study Finds Counties With Sheriff-Coroners Underreport Officer-Involved Homicides

All but 10 California counties have a sheriff who also assumes the duties of county coroner. The sheriff-coroner model has come under criticism in recent years, culminating in a 2022 Assembly bill that would have required counties to separate the offices. That bill failed to pass in the Senate.

A new study from USC Dornsife could revive the issue. Researchers found that counties with a sheriff-coroner were more likely to underreport officer-involved homicides in official databases.

The researchers looked at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR) and Multiple Cause-of-Death files from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). They compared that data against Fatal Encounters, an open-source database for officer-involved homicides. The discrepancies resulted from a lack of responses by state and county law enforcement as well as actual omission of incidents.

USC cites two cases to demonstrate how officer-involved homicides get misreported.

In 2017, San Joaquin County’s sheriff-coroner was accused of changing one man’s cause of death from “homicide” to “accident.” Several officials including the county’s chief forensic pathologist, Bennet Omalu, resigned in protest and the Board of Supervisors removed coroner duties from the sheriff’s department. 

Angelo Quinto died in 2020 after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly five minutes. The Contra Costa County Sheriff-Coroner’s office officially reported his death as a case of “excited delirium.”

Read the USC Dornsife study here or follow this link for a summary.