Changes At ME's Office Put To Reality Check

Tuesday, July 21st 2009, 10:35 pm
By: News On 6

By Ashli Sims, The News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK -- A multi-county grand jury's report released this week didn't just criticize the state Medical Examiner's Office, but also offered ways the agency could improve. 

The ME's office says they've already taken action to make the agency better.

A spokesperson for the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office says the agency is under new leadership.  And, the old problems aren't problems anymore.  But, that doesn't mean that all of the grand jury's recommendations have been put in place.

The multi-county grand jury characterized the state medical examiner's office as having willful blindness and gross incompetence, leaving employees victimized psychologically and emotionally.

Read the Grand Jury's Full Report (PDF)

"These issues he knew about and addressed and has been working on ever since he started here," said Cherokee Ballard with the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office.

Ballard says they welcome the grand jury's recommendations, but many of the changes have already been made.

7/21/2009  Related Story:  Report: ME Office Mishandled Criminal Evidence

The grand jury suggested the office update personnel policies, create new ones where needed, and strictly enforce them.

"Our chief medical examiner was very surprised when he came in to find out the lack of a lot of policy," said Cherokee Ballard.

Ballard says the new chief, Dr. Collie Trant is already working to correct the policy problem, including instituting a zero tolerance policy against sexual misconduct.

"I can tell you we don't tolerate that here. If it happened before, we really regret that. We really do. But, we don't tolerate that now," said Cherokee Ballard with the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office.

The report also hammered the agency for lax security, advising the ME's office to boost security in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

"The evidence lockers are locked. We have a security guard who's there at night," said Cherokee Ballard.  "We feel certain that everything is secure here and we don't believe anything is going on like that now."

The grand jury is pushing the agency to create a protocol for handling, documenting and storing evidence and training its staff on that protocol.

Cherokee Ballard says the new chief is working on it, but there's no regular training for the staff.

"The bottom line here is that we need more funding for more people, more space and more equipment. To fix some of these issues we need more people to come in and be able to write policy all day long," said Cherokee Ballard.

There is one grand jury recommendation that the ME's office is not budging on and that's becoming part of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

"My chief says that will not happen as long as he's here. He doesn't want that. We need to remain independent, because we sometimes investigate deaths that are sometimes connected to very high profile crimes," said Cherokee Ballard.

It would be up to state lawmakers to fold the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office into the OSBI.  But, it's an option they recently rejected.