If one wants to evaluate the health and vitality of their community, just take a long, hard look at how it processes its dead. At least that’s what Bruce Goldfarb, former Executive Assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland and self-proclaimed “reformed journalist,”implies in his eye-opening chronicle of the nation’s preeminent forensics lab.
Practically a small city in its own right, OCME processes tens of thousands of autopsies a year for the state, employs hundreds from the local community and has informed countless police investigations since it was founded. It’s a top-notch center, known in the forensic world for its talent, resources and air-tight review structure that make it difficult for autopsied bodies to get shuttled through the system without due diligence.
Yet in a city such as Baltimore, which has seen consistent lack of public health and safety investments over the past several decades and a sharp rise in unnatural deaths, serving every body justly is no easy task. And even the most critical of government agencies are not immune from debilitating criticism.
“The police may be in charge of the scene, but their authority ends at the chalk outline around a dead body. The person within that chalk outline is the jurisdiction of the medical examiner. Any number of agencies may be involved in investigating a sudden death – police fire department arson investigators, adult protective services, child fatality review team, OSHA, National Transportation Safety Board. They do their thing, we do ours. The medical examiner – this medical examiner office – is independent and autonomous. We aren’t on any team. The medical examiner’s sole duty is to the deceased person. We speak for the dead.”
— Bruce Goldfarb, author of OCME
Goldfarb’s book is both urgent and evergreen. OCME opens on the scene of a protest over the recently publicized autopsy report of Tyrone West, a Black man who died at the hands of the police in 2013. While public outrage over violent death is certainly a throughline in the book, Goldfarb also steps back in time to contextualize these protests against Baltimore’s public health history as a whole. The agency’s strict procedures and standards — which have been known to cause frustration amongst those who want more information than an autopsy report is really able to provide — sit in sharp contrast to the city’s previously defunct system of corpse disposal, as well as its failure in several big ways to attend to the protection of its citizens while alive.
In an early chapter, Goldfarb quotes a journalist from The Baltimore Examiner, who states that “People in Baltimore die in a lot of spectacularly violent and horrifying ways. It’s our job as reporters to cover it. By not telling the stories of the dead, we do a disservice to the community.”
One one hand, Goldfarb touts the good work forensics provides for communities and argues for an increase in investment. On the other, he acknowledges it as a limited field that cannot rightfully fill in certain blanks about the cause or manner of unnatural deaths no matter how much the public demands. These limits are by design, Goldfarb argues, as serving the deceased respectfully entails a total commitment to providing categorized information about the death at hand, not writing the story.
Having worked in the past as both an EMT and a journalist, Goldfarb’s perspective is one built on the unique conflict between these professions. The criminal justice system, as well as its watchdogs in the press, find themselves frequently beholden to the forensic process to perform their duties. Yet the reverse could not be further from the truth.
Forensic agencies such as Baltimore’s OCME sit at the crux of the public world of government and the private world of medicine. They find themselves constantly in the crosshairs between journalists, police and concerned citizens. As a result, they are also regularly at the center of a national conversation about race and policing.
The only way forward through all of these tensions, Goldfarb argues, is to maintain a steadfast and independent priority to the dead. Despite its problems, he sees his beloved city of Baltimore and the forensic standards forged at OCME as the blueprint.
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