As much as Jeffrey Rouse was seen as the insider candidate during the race to become New Orleans’ next coroner, the nitty-gritty details about how the Coroner’s Office works are, for the moment, still somewhat of a mystery to him.
There’s not much doubt that the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office has for years been the most ignored — and underfinanced — part of the city’s criminal justice system.
The office, described by critics as dysfunctional, often struggles to provide basic services, such as getting death certificates to grieving families in a timely fashion.
During the recent campaign, Rouse pledged to change that situation in many ways, from seemingly small steps like returning to 24-hour operation to larger initiatives designed to revamp how the office functions. He vowed, too, to face head-on the most frequent criticism of the office: that longtime Coroner Frank Minyard tilted some death classifications in controversial cases involving people who were killed by the police or who died in Orleans Parish Prison in favor of those agencies.
But actually implementing even a simple idea like keeping the office open around the clock to deal with untimely deaths as they happen won’t be easy. Without an immediate infusion of new cash, or rethinking how the office spends the $1.8 million a year it gets from the city, no new initiatives will get off the ground.
That means some of Rouse’s more ambitious ideas will have to wait a bit, he said.
“My real job is going to be getting into the office, getting hold of the financial information and sitting down in a more comprehensive way with the city,” said Rouse, who will be sworn in as coroner Monday, officially ending Minyard’s 40-year reign.
Although he has worked as a forensic psychiatrist in the office’s mental health division for more than a decade, Rouse never had the authority to delve into the office’s finances.
Since his election in March, he has sat down with city officials to try to better understand the office’s budget. He has visited the coroner operations in Jefferson and East Baton Rouge parishes to get some guidance about how to restructure the office. He has met with economists to figure out how much he can charge other parishes for autopsies the New Orleans office does for them. In the view of critics, the office has woefully undercharged for those services, bringing in perhaps $200,000 a year or less.
Although he also has been meeting with other elected officials in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Rouse said he doesn’t expect immediate financial help from them. The key to bringing in more money this year will be either the expected increase in autopsy fees or possibly securing federal grants.
“It is quite apparent to me that this is not going to be simply a matter of going and begging the Landrieu administration for more money, going and begging the City Council for more money,” he said. “This is demanding a creative hustle.”
Michael Sherman, a former executive counsel for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, has volunteered to help Rouse navigate the city’s unfamiliar bureaucracy.
The problems at the Coroner’s Office start with the lack of resources but run deeper, Sherman said.
“It is fair to say that, during this transition period, it has become obvious that the office suffers not only from a lack of resources and an inadequate facility, but also from antiquated operational systems and antiquated — and, at times, absent — policies and procedures” that do not reflect “best practices,” Sherman said.
As one example, he pointed to the lack of investigators. While the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office employs just two investigators — one of whom works part time — Jefferson Parish historically has employed three times that many.
Such investigators are important because they can dig up information about the circumstances of a person’s death, helping determine whether an autopsy is necessary to figure out how the person died.
The lack of on-the-ground investigation means the office’s forensic pathologists end up conducting too many autopsies, Sherman said. New Orleans’ pathologists do several hundred percent more autopsies than those in comparable parishes, he said.
In his campaign, Rouse pledged to ask all of the office’s employees to resign and reapply for their jobs. That process will begin this summer, but not right away, he said.
“This is not a business you can shut down, close the door and start back up again,” he said. “It is going to be a rolling process over the summer.”
Rouse said he has borrowed policies and procedures documents from the other offices he’s visited to provide the foundation for similar — currently lacking — documents for the local office.
He wants all of his operational changes in place before next year, when the office will move from its current decrepit facilities in a former funeral parlor to a new building going up on Earhart Boulevard — a day he said all of the office’s employees are excitedly anticipating.
One of the biggest tasks facing Rouse will be simply restoring trust in the office. That trust was fractured in recent years as a few of Minyard’s decisions on death classifications were questioned, particularly in cases involving police shootings.
During the campaign, Rouse pledged operational reforms that could help forestall similar questions about his decisions, such as videotaping all autopsies and allowing independent experts to watch autopsies in controversial cases.
As for going back and reviewing old cases where the death classification has been questioned, Rouse pledged he would move forward with that effort, but not immediately, saying he first has to concentrate on keeping the office running. He said he has a list of cases brought to him by people during the campaign and expects to hear about others.
“I asked for the public’s trust that this will be done, but there will not be an answer on Day 2 of my administration on reclassifying cases from the past,” he said. “I am going to need to see all the evidence before I come up with a decision.”
Rouse has hired a psychiatrist to take over his former job of evaluating mentally ill patients who resist treatment, determining whether they should be committed to mental institutions against their will.
Although he expects to be called in to help out from time to time, he said, he evaluated his final patient as a deputy coroner last week.
“It was somewhat of an emotional experience,” he said. “I’ve done 10,000 of these things. It was a strange moment, to think, ‘This is the last one you are going to do for a while because now you are going to be the boss.’ ”