When the Dalles Police Sgt. Jeff Halter is acting in his role as a deputy medical examiner at an unattended death, he often has to say there’s no assumption something is criminal just because a police officer is there.
“I end up explaining that a lot to people,” said Halter, who has held that role since the late 1990s. “Just because we’re policemen that doesn’t mean we think you’ve done anything wrong.”
Indeed, the vast majority of unattended or unexpected deaths are from natural causes, said Dr. Miriam McDonell, the county’s medical examiner.
“It’s the part of law enforcement that people don’t see, unless they come across it personally,” McDonell said. “But it is a big part of their job.”
McDonell was effusive in her praise of the police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers who serve as deputy medical examiners.
“They are absolutely invaluable,” she said. “They really do the vast majority of the information gathering, pretty much everything that happens at the scene.”
She said the deputy medical examiners she’s worked with have been “incredibly thorough, they are very compassionate and kind to families. One of my best professional experiences is working with law enforcement and getting to know them and see how much they do for people.”
Halter said, “We’re the eyes and ears of the physician medical examiner. So any time there’s a death outside a medical care facility, we’ll come in to do a bit of an investigation.”
That includes taking photos, gathering medications, doing a brief physical examination of the body, talking to family members to glean any information they might have such as when the decedent was last seen, and notifying next of kin.
The police department requires its sergeants to become deputy medical examiners. Halter’s promotion to sergeant over 20 years ago brought him his new role.
“I knew it would be emotionally difficult and unpleasant,” he said of the duty, “but I knew it was a task that needed to be done thoroughly, professionally and with compassion, and I hoped I could do it well. It’s one of those jobs nobody wants to do, and I felt I could do it and treat people well.”
He said the public also may not know that the police department’s chaplain, volunteer Doug Marquardt, also comes along on a lot of the calls. “And that’s an absolute blessing for the department and for the community.”
He said Marquardt can sit with the family while the Sergeant checks the decedent for post-mortem changes. “The family can certainly watch but a lot of people would rather not see that,” Halter said.
Halter often offers comfort to family members. “Sometimes people are struggling with, if only they’d come home sooner, or if they’d done this or that. You explain that they can’t blame themselves. Or they get concerned whether the person is suffering, and you can explain they’re lying right next to a phone, if they would’ve been in pain they would’ve called.”
When comforting family members, Halter said, “You try not to put your foot in your mouth, you try to read the person and what might be helpful and what might not be.”
He said he takes the mental approach of, “Of course it’s a bad thing that happened, but maybe my being compassionate and doing a professional job can be a positive thing. I guess if you just looked at it as negative nobody would do it.”
The police department has four sergeants, and the two newest ones, Eric Macnab and Josh Jones, both weren’t able to take the deputy medical examiner training last year—it is only offered once a year—but did attend it recently.
The three current deputy medical examiners, Halter, Sgt. Doug Kramer and Capt. Jamie Carrico, have been “pretty slammed with them [unattended deaths],” Macnab said. “You wouldn’t think there’d be that many, but there are.”
Since January 2018, there have been 42 such deaths in the city, he said.
At the weeklong training, Macnab learned about the external examination of a decedent, which includes feeling the whole body, from head to arms and legs, to chest and stomach.
Macnab said the role is just a necessary part of his promotion. “I wouldn’t say it’s the thing I look forward to the most, but it’s an obligation.”
Typically, unattended deaths are in the home—often in bed, sometimes in the bathroom, for example—but Halter has also attended deaths outdoors of transients or pedestrians struck on a freeway.
As he goes about collecting information at a death scene, “You’re always thinking, ‘I don’t want to make a mistake,’ you kind of guard for that, that you don’t want to blow something out of proportion that was a natural death and you also don’t want to miss something, but try to do a thorough job on all of them. Even if it initially appeared clear-cut and fine—and it probably is—you still want to do as thorough and professional a job as you can at the scene.”
Often, the way unattended deaths are discovered is by a call from a family member saying they can’t reach someone by phone, and they ask police to do a welfare check on them.
Sometimes, death scenes can be hazardous to the officer’s health. Halter’s never worn a full-body protective suit, “but there might’ve been times that I should’ve.”
“I’ve certainly gone to scenes where people were in an advanced state of decomposition or scenes where there’s evidence of animal feeding,” he said.
He said some cases he’s been on “have very much stuck with me.”
But, he keeps his perspective. “You kind of realize the family is going through something so much worse, so how can you focus on ‘Gee, this is hard for me’ when the family is there?”
McDonell noted that deputy medical examiners are now technically called medicolegal death investigators, a nomenclature change that was made about two yeas ago.
Deputy medical examiners are called out to any unattended or unexpected death, any death that is thought to be accidental, any suicide, or any homicide, she said. “So if anyone is under 60 and doesn’t have any significant medical history it would be considered an unexpected death and they would do an evaluation.”
As the medical examiner, McDonell is able to request any medical records on a decedent. “So I piece together what happened on that end.” The medical record information and the information gathered by law enforcement at the scene are combined into a narrative that makes up the medical examiner report, which is filed with the state.
One value of doing reports on unexpected deaths is the safety information they can provide, McDonell said. For example, car crash deaths always include specific information about the make, model and year of a vehicle, so that information can be collated nationwide and examined for possible dangerous trends.
They can also serve as a means of giving information to loved ones about what happened to the decedent, and they can provide clarity in insurance cases, McDonell said.
While the vast majority of deaths are from natural causes, some are from accidents, suicides and homicides. “Sometimes it is unclear to be honest whether something is an accident or suicide, then you put on the death certificate presumed suicide or presumed accident,” she said.
Halter said often the cause of death isn’t a mystery. If an 84-year-old dies and there’s inhalers on one side of the recliner and there’s an ashtray on the other side of the recliner, he said, the only riddle is how they lived that long.
But if it’s a young person with no known medical issues, it becomes a little more complicated.
Cases of infant death are “always horrible,” he said.
He said deputy medical examiners are not offered more counseling than any other officer.
“It’s just something you kind of deal with,” he said. “Every job has its stresses.”