When Dr. Jeffrey Rouse took office as Orleans Parish coroner in May 2014, becoming the second person to hold the title since Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, he inherited an agency that, forensically speaking, had reached an advanced stage of decomposition.
The office not only lagged technologically. It had fallen into financial disarray under Frank Minyard, the longtime coroner, who had become increasingly unwilling to lobby for resources.
That “benign neglect,” as Rouse puts it, was greatly compounded by Hurricane Katrina, which flooded the old Coroner’s Office at the Criminal District Courthouse and consigned its operations to a fire-damaged former funeral parlor in Central City.
But perhaps the greatest challenge Rouse faced was unrelated to his limited funding or the heavy workload fueled by New Orleans’ epidemic street violence. Rather, it involved a palpable lack of community trust in the Coroner’s Office, a skepticism rooted in decades of controversial findings, particularly in deaths occurring at the hands of law enforcement personnel.
“For years, if there was an in-custody death, you really could not have confidence that the investigation would be handled in an impartial way,” said Mary Howell, a veteran New Orleans civil rights attorney who has sued law enforcement in many such cases. “That was a very common perception and based on actual experience in the community. I think (Rouse) heard that, he saw it — and he set about addressing it.”
Restoring the office’s luster has been a priority for Rouse in his first year at the helm, a whirlwind 12 months in which he has secured additional funding from the city, hired new investigators, updated an antiquated records system and introduced a special autopsy protocol intended to boost transparency in cases where someone dies in police custody.
In sum, Rouse has traded the insular tendencies of his predecessor for a progressive approach that’s brought with it new faces and a focus on bringing the office in line with national standards.
“I think he’s adamantly trying to do the right thing,” said Dr. Beau Clark, the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner. “I’m impressed with what he’s done in a short amount of time with incredibly limited resources.”
In an interview last week, Rouse said the job has been both more demanding and more rewarding than he anticipated. He said he knew he was taking on an “administrative monster” in seeking to “right the ship from years past.” But in many respects, he acknowledged, he had no way of knowing the amount of work that entailed — much of which still lies ahead.
“Humbling” and “eye-opening” were among the terms Rouse used to describe his first year. While he has long been exposed to death as a medical practitioner and a deputy coroner, Rouse said he has been “struck by the randomness of it and the insane senselessness of the violence in this city.”
“I definitely value my time a lot more now,” he said, “because nobody knows how much we have.”
A positive impression
By all accounts, Rouse appears to have made a positive impression in New Orleans’ criminal justice system.
Tamara Jackson, executive director of Silence Is Violence, a victims support group, said Rouse also has been well received in the community, due in large part to his compassion for those struck by tragedy. The office previously had been criticized for seeming to be indifferent to relatives of victims.
Jackson said her organization is being paid by the Coroner’s Office to console and counsel family members of murder victims, a new arrangement announced earlier this year. “Dr. Rouse understands the fragmented system that exists,” she said, “and he wants to make sure all the processes are as transparent as possible.”
Even New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux offered positive feedback, though he noted Rouse has been in office for only a year.
“Dr. Rouse has said that his goal for his four-year term is to get that agency accredited, which is a tough process,” Quatrevaux said. “That process can deliver more than I can with periodic reviews. I’m sitting back and watching, and I hope that he succeeds.”
Rouse, 40, was recruited to join the Coroner’s Office in 2003, when he was a young resident in psychiatry at the Tulane University School of Medicine. He viewed the job as a chance to earn some extra money. “I’m the son of a lawyer,” he said, “and I’ve always been intrigued by that interface between medicine and law.”
In the aftermath of Katrina, Rouse worked to maintain some semblance of the office’s psychiatric division at a time when the city’s suicide rate skyrocketed. Like police officers and other first responders, he worked out of his car, keeping mental-health commitment papers in his back pocket.
“During Katrina, he was a real hero,” said Minyard, the former coroner. “Nobody was getting paid at the office because there was no money in the city. Jeffrey was seeing people who needed psychiatric commitments on street corners and in coffee shops.”
The coroner eventually relocated to the former Rhodes Funeral Home on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a cramped facility ill-suited for virtually every function of the office. Nearly a decade after the storm, corpses still are stored in refrigerated trucks behind the building.
As Minyard describes it, the office, in his final year on the job, “was working in Katrina-mode nine years after Katrina.”
A new home at last
By this summer, however, Rouse expects the Coroner’s Office will move into a new facility at Earhart Boulevard and South Claiborne Avenue that it will share with the city’s Emergency Medical Services.
After years of delays, the opening of the two-story building will mark a turning of the page for an office that, for the seven decades leading up to Katrina, had conducted autopsies on the ground floor of the criminal courthouse.
“We’re very excited,” Rouse said. “It’s a sea change.”
At the beginning of his term, Rouse visited his counterparts in surrounding parishes to compare operations and generate ideas for improving the office. He said he suffers from a bout of “coroner envy” anytime someone mentions Jefferson Parish, whose coroner’s office enjoys far better funding thanks to a dedicated property tax.
Last year, Rouse persuaded the New Orleans City Council to increase his budget by nearly 23 percent. He said he intends to ask for another increase this year, adding that the office needs more than $3 million a year to reach national standards. His budget this year is $2.2 million, though the office also generates about $380,000 a year from cremation permits and out-of-parish autopsy fees.
“Dr. Minyard, for all of his wonderful characteristics, in his later years didn’t really press for the resources that I think the office needs,” Rouse said. “The office knew that internally, and the public definitely noticed it.”
To raise money, Rouse has more than doubled the price the office charges to conduct autopsies for other parishes. The rate had remained unchanged for years, even as the cost of conducting autopsies increased.
Rouse said he has devoted “the lion’s share” of the office’s new funding to hiring.
“One of the huge things (Rouse) has done was to develop a core of professional death investigators who go through training and certification,” said Dr. Robert Treuting, a former Jefferson Parish coroner. “I know that did not exist in any real good state under Dr. Minyard.”
Perhaps the most significant change Rouse made was to establish an in-custody death protocol that’s used anytime someone dies at the hands of law enforcement or in jail.
The protocol, which the office has activated three times so far, requires that an autopsy be conducted no more than 24 hours after the death. It also permits outside agencies — as well as an independent forensic pathologist selected by the dead person’s family — to attend the procedure.
“It relieves a lot of the suspicion,” said Howell, the civil rights attorney. “It relieves the fear and anxiety that there’s something happening in there that’s not right.”
Praise from Minyard
Minyard offers effusive praise of Rouse, even as he defends his own stewardship of the office during his 40-year tenure.
Katrina, he said, stripped the office of some two dozen employees. What Rouse has done, Minyard said, “is exactly what the office needed.”
An obstetrician before taking office, Minyard said he “was never a good politician,” which prevented him at times from securing much-needed resources. But by the same token, he said, he never allowed politics to influence his death investigations, and he flatly rejected any suggestion that he showed favoritism to law enforcement.
Minyard noted he was not a trained pathologist and said he relied religiously on his chief forensic pathologist.
“The classifications of deaths I came up with, I just repeated like a parrot,” he said. “I’m very proud of everything we ever did there.”
Still, Rouse said it became abundantly clear to him on the campaign trail that there were “sections of the public that didn’t always necessarily believe the answers that came out of this office.”
“That was a strong impetus for me to do some things that I believe are leading toward greater confidence in the office of coroner,” Rouse added, “regardless of who sits in this chair.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.