WASHINGTON - With the recent spike in crime in Yakima County and a lack of forensic pathologists in Eastern Washington, law enforcement and coroners are a little worried that death investigations are going to take more time.
"Forensic pathologists are essential partners in death investigations," said Chris Whitsett, investigator at Kittitas County Sheriff's Office.
A Forensic Pathologist is a specialist in the examination of persons who die suddenly, unexpectedly, or violently. They are also an expert in determining the cause and manner of death. Forensic Pathologists can also help in investigations regarding child abuse and a person suspected of having been sexually assaulted.
"They explain how a person died, what physically caused that death," said Whitsett. "We work with them to explain the manner of death. That is to determine if it was natural, an accident, a suicide, a homicide."
Within the last year, the one forensic pathologist who lived in Yakima County officially retired after the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to calm down, leaving a shortage of help.
"There's times when we have to transport people over to King County so we get the autopsy done in a timely manner," said Jim Curtice, Yakima County Coroner. "King County, they're only taking 5 outside cases a week because their workload is very, very heavy."
But this shortage isn't just in Washington, it's nationwide. There are only about 500 forensic pathologists in the entire country.
That's why Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla, Yakima, and Kittitas counties are working on a plan to get a forensic pathologist to share, with the assistance of The Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.
"The importance is, one that we want to be able to find a cause in death as quickly as we can so we can so we can release the person back into the funeral home and to the family and so the final arrangements can be taken care of," said Curtice.
Last summer, a King County Deputy Fire Chief went missing in Kittitas county, with help from a King County Forensic Pathologist, deputies at Kittitas County Sheriff's Office were able to solve the investigation.
"It was a forensic pathologist who conducted an autopsy on Chief Schreckengost and yes that helped us to determine that it was believed to be an accident," said Whitsett. "That was the manner of death and the specific cause of death, he was able to detail the exact details put together with all the circumstances that we understood what had happened."
In the U.S. it typically takes 12 to 13 years of education and training to become a forensic pathologist.
This could be a deterrent to why many people choose not to go into this field.
Seattle University and Eastern Washington University both offer bachelor's degrees with a concentration in forensic science and criminal justice.