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L.A. County coroner's investigators want to carry weapons on the job

March 06, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Los Angeles County coroner's investigators, often among the first to arrive at crime scenes, are seeking permission to carry weapons while on the job.

"We're working in one of the most dangerous areas in the nation," said Mario Sainz, a veteran investigator who has been lobbying the county to change its policy. "We've had incidents where the gangbangers -- even though there are uniformed cops -- drive by the scene, randomly shooting, and the coroner's investigator has no means of protection."

So far, county officials have rejected arming on-duty coroner's investigators, citing numerous liability concerns.

Though California law grants coroner's investigators the right to carry weapons while off duty, it is up to the counties to set on-the-job policy.

Arming L.A.'s 40 coroner's investigators would bring the department in line with Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Kern and Sacramento counties.

Sainz and some of his colleagues recently contacted the county's chief executive, William T Fujioka, to plead for reconsideration of a proposal submitted last fall.

"We just want to be able to defend ourselves," Sainz said.

To argue for the change in policy, he has collected police and sheriff's reports on incidents in which coroner's investigators were shot at while investigating crime scenes, including a South Los Angeles drive-by involving an AK-47 five years ago.

Concern was heightened, he said, when a man doing community service at the coroner's office in January was found carrying a 9-mm pistol in his waistband and arrested by Los Angeles police, according to records.

"They may not do the traditional role, but they are still peace officers and they are out there and it places them at risk," said Brian Moriguchi, head of the Professional Peace Officers Assn. union, which represents the investigators. "If they come across somebody who becomes confrontational with them, they don't have sufficient means to defend themselves."

Nationally, despite television portrayals of gun-toting crime scene investigators, most large jurisdictions -- including New York, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas, Dallas, Seattle and Phoenix -- do not allow forensic investigators to carry weapons.

Anthony Hernandez, director of the L.A. coroner's office, said he initially supported the proposal but changed his mind after hearing the county's liability concerns.

"Every time they go out into the field, as peace officers they may find themselves in a precarious situation," he said, adding: "I don't know that weapons are the ultimate answer to safety."

Robert J. Foucrault, San Mateo County coroner and first vice president of the California State Coroners Assn., said that although he hasn't allowed his investigators to be armed on duty, he understands the concerns of his colleagues in Los Angeles.

A former investigator, Foucrault was once attacked while notifying a family of a death. He sees investigators increasingly at risk of being robbed or attacked as they transport cash, jewelry and other evidence.

"There are a lot of things we do today that we didn't have to do in years past," Foucrault said. "We do death notification, we have to search and secure residences. We just don't go pick up a body, put it in a van and go."

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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