Montgomery County commissioners deferred decision on a request from the county forensic director for an additional staff member May 14 after the department head said workflow there has increased since taking over death investigations from the justices of the peace.
Kathryn Pinneri, director of county forensic services, said the requested position would carry a salary of $54,665 and benefits.
“There has been a change in our workflow,” Pinneri said. “This came about from [Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Matt] Beasley, who noticed that the reporting requirements for justice of the peace are different from those of a medical examiner … the death of a person in the hospital within 24 hours for a JP by law is not reportable. However, those deaths a large number of the time are going to be people who fall under a JP case … but there are some that might get missed if those aren’t reported.”
Pinneri said the shifting of those investigations to the forensic department would result in increased workloads because hospital deaths would now be routed to forensic services instead of through the justices of the peace.
The commissioners voted 4-1 to defer the item, with Judge Mark Keough voting against the motion.
Beasley spoke at the meeting alongside Pinneri, stating that until a few weeks ago, justices of the peace were handling all of the death investigation calls, including hospital calls.
“I don’t know the legislative intent on why JPs have a different responsibility when it comes to this, my assumption is that when the legislation was created for medical examiner’s office they know it was for bigger counties and they could respond to these things.” Beasley said.
Beasley said a “good amount” of the calls the justice of the peace office receives for hospital deaths did not need to be reported to the JP’s office.
“Since we’re not operating as an ME’s office, I don’t think we should halfway operate as an ME’s office,” Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack said. “We either stick with the system … or we move towards a full ME’s office.”
Montgomery County currently has two death investigators.
“As the population grows … the JPs are going to need help or the doctor’s going to need help,” Precinct 4 Commissioner James Mett said. “When someone is not walking around breathing anymore, you’ve got to find out why that is.”
The caseload of deaths has been increasing even without taking on the justice of the peace death investigations, Pinneri said.
“Every year I’ve been here since 2016 has been a record number of cases,” she said.
Discussion of converting the forensics department to a medical examiner’s office was on the agenda for May 13, but deferred to a future session.
“That’s something we have to do at some point and have to be considering,” Noack said.