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Overhaul for Cook County medical examiner's office

The morgue’s coolers can hold 300 bodies, but November saw 363 bodies – some stacked two to a tray. (WBEZ/Jennifer Brandel)

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office will be getting an overhaul. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced Thursday there will be changes in personnel, policy and protocol in the medical examiner’s office. That comes after recent stories in the news about the county morgue being over capacity.

Preckwinkle said her offices have been reviewing the Medical Examiner department before those news stories broke. But she said she was “disturbed and disappointed and discouraged” at some activities of the department.

Preckwinkle said her office is “conducting a top to bottom review of operations” and there’s also a recently launched external investigation by the Inspector General. The Inspector General’s probe was launched after media reports that the morgue’s coolers, which are designed to fit 300 bodies, were well over capacity and bodies were piling up.  

Toni Preckwinkle calls her review of the medical examiner's office 'disturbing.' (WBEZ/Jennifer Brandel)
At Thursday’s news conference, Martha Martinez, a county deputy chief administrative officer, said in November the count was 363 bodies and some had to be double-stacked on one tray. Preckwinkle blamed the full coolers in part because the county saw a “record number of storage cases in November,” another way of saying more bodies than usual, and on recent cuts in state funding for indigent burials.

“It was a combination of our system being taxed to the maximum and our lack of resources to provide burials for people,” Preckwinkle said.

She also expressed dismay that staff in the medical examiner’s office went to the media with issues they had about the department, rather than going straight to her.

When asked why current chief medical examiner Dr. Nancy Jones was not at the news conference to answer questions as well, Preckwinkle said, “I’m the president of the county and it’s most appropriate for me to be answering questions about county operations.”

Jones, a hire from former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, has recently come under fire from Preckwinkle for the management problems in the department. The board president would not say whether she would fire Dr. Jones, but did say, “People will lose their jobs.”

Preckwinkle also said, “I think the problems we have here are a reflection on the way in which operations have been conducted and not on resource cuts from the county side.”

Currently the chief medical examiner position does not have a term limit, which is something County Commissioner John Fritchey said he wants to amend in the county code. Preckwinkle hinted that among the changes made to the medical examiner’s office, a way to oust an ineffective manager would be one of them.

“It’s inappropriate for anybody in county government to have a term that’s equivalent to a federal judge, which is a life term,” Preckwinkle said.

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