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EDITORIAL: Don’t give Preckwinkle the easy way out in death investigations

Faced with the medical examiner’s routine failure to visit death scenes, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is moving to do away with that requirement. | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is wrong to try to water down an ordinance that demands on-the-scene investigations by the medical examiner’s office in cases of suspicious deaths.

It’s not as if local law enforcement is doing a terrific job already of solving murders. This might only make the “clearance” rate worse.

As Robert Herguth and Tim Novak of the Sun-Times first reported, medical examiner investigators have a poor track record of visiting scenes of suspicious deaths. So now Preckwinkle wants to rewrite the rules so they don’t have to. The county board should say no.

EDITORIAL

The focus should be on better compliance with the current ordinance that says the medical examiner or an appointed staff member “shall go to the location of the body and take charge” of the body, “and shall begin his/her investigation with an examination of the scene.” This dictate applies to all suspicious deaths, such as homicides, suicides and accidental deaths.

A state law imposes pretty much the same requirements, and for good reason. The medical examiner needs all the facts to determine cause and manner of death, and the fact-finding should begin at the scene where a body is found.

County officials have told the Sun-Times that their interpretation of the current ordinance doesn’t require investigators go to the scene. We have to disagree. The language of the law — beginning with that word “shall” — is pretty unambiguous.

The new proposed ordinance would codify that going to the scene is at the “discretion” of the medical examiner.

Money, not surprisingly, is driving this change. The county is looking at a shortfall of $82 million next year. But that can’t be a reason to gut professional standards.

Rulings by the medical examiner matter greatly in police investigations. And the cops need all the help they can get. Last year, Chicago Police solved only 17.5 percent of murders that occurred in 2017.

When the medical examiner doesn’t send out investigators, the office must rely on the police to provide all the details. That leaves more room for mistakes. As we see it, the medical examiner, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, needs to beef up the professional standards, not settle for less. Too much has already gone wrong.

In February, Herguth and Novak reported that medical examiner investigators went to fewer than one of every five death scenes. In May, they reported that Arunkumar had to do an unprecedented review of cases overseen by a doctor who mishandled several cases, including a wrong ruling in a murder. There have been other questionable hires, including bringing on a former cop as an investigator after he was charged with shooting his fiancée in the legs.

The FBI believes the medical examiner’s office wrongly ruled the 2015 death of off-duty Chicago Police Sgt. Donald Markham a suicide. The FBI believes Markham was murdered.

We can’t see how loosening professional standards would be good for Cook County.

People are getting away with murder enough as it is.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.