County’s final coroner reflects on work, future of department

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – County Coroner Dave Parris holds a unique place in his office’s 110-year history – he will be its last leader as a stand-alone public agency.

The county is proceeding with a plan to consolidate the Coroner’s Office into the Sheriff’s Office effective Jan. 30, 2015.

The following day will be Parris’ first day of retirement after a 37-year public safety career that has included work as a Eureka Police Department officer, detective and bureau supervisor, Yurok Tribal Police Chief and, for the last six years, county coroner.

“It’s time that I move on – I’ve probably done everything that most law enforcement officers can do,” he said.

DocumentParris has been considering retirement for about a year, but “my attention’s been on the office – where it’s at and where it’s going in the future,” he continued.

Where it’s going is where the county’s previous coroner, Frank Jager, also recommended it should go. “It was his position that we should consolidate as well,” Parris said.

When Parris began work as coroner in 2009, he quickly saw that “most of what [Jager] was talking about was true, in relationship to the shortfalls in the office, mainly lack of a sufficient budget.”

Parris started his work as budget struggles here and statewide peaked. After years of incremental cuts, a recession hammered government budgets and an era of frozen positions and huge workloads was in swing.

The Coroner’s Office only has five employees – Parris, three deputy coroners and an administrative assistant – to handle 300 death cases a year and another 200 cases in which it is indirectly involved. Administrating estates and assisting families is also an important part of the office’s work, with 25 to 30 estate cases handled annually.

“My objective was to make the office run to the best of my ability, with what we had in front of us,” Parris said. “But I also had to look at all the options I had to make the workloads easier for the deputy coroners.”

That goal would eventually lead to Parris’ recommendation to pursue consolidation. In his first year as coroner, he took the near-term approach of launching a volunteer/intern program.

After drafting a volunteer training policy, Parris worked with College of the Redwoods and Humboldt State University to recruit student volunteers who assisted pathologists with autopsy work.

In mid-2009, the program had three volunteers. There are now 50 volunteers doing virtually all of the autopsy technician work that deputy coroners once did.

The program has allowed deputy coroners to concentrate on investigations and field work and saved thousands of staffing dollars, Parris said.

But it hasn’t been a panacea. Though not considered a first responder agency, the Coroner’s Office is required to respond to deaths on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis. Deputy coroners – and Parris himself – have taken week-long turns being on call 24 hours a day.

Once consolidated, the office’s three deputy coroners will become part of the Sheriff’s Office and Parris said sheriff’s deputies can be cross-trained to do the initial response work.

Workloads will generally be easier to spread out, as the Sheriff’s Office has more than 200 employees.

The Sheriff’s Office will take on a challenging job. But Parris said the benefits of his work lie in its challenges.

“You meet with a tremendous amount of very good people and when they’re dumbfounded and in shock and you’re there to help them through that, it can be very rewarding.”

People are thankful and express it, he continued. “You don’t often get that in law enforcement,” he said.

The work is also self-revealing. “You learn a lot about yourself and how far you can go in handling your emotions,” Parris said. “When you walk out the back door and see a five-month-old baby that’s now dead and been beaten by the mother’s boyfriend – you have to handle that case and it’s tough.”

Cases like that one have at times been so overwhelming to the office’s employees that Parris had to send them all home to process what they were dealing with, he continued.

Now approaching retirement, Parris is looking forward to spending time with his family, including his three adult children. “It’s time to catch up,” he said.

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