Recent scandals involving staffers at the New York City medical examiner’s office prompted lawmakers to pass two legislative bills Thursday requiring more accountability and transparency in the city agency.
The votes came during the Sept. 12 meeting of the New York City Council. The new legislation – aimed at reforming the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner – are “necessary for restoring the public’s trust” in the municipal agency after recent controversies over DNA testing and protocols came to light, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said during a Thursday afternoon press conference.
Two heated oversight hearings were held with the medical examiner’s office after a Daily News report revealed the resignation of a top deputy at the agency. The newspaper reported that she left after allegations were raised that the agency failed to follow appropriate lab protocols. After the abrupt resignation of three staffers in May, hundreds of sexual abuse cases were being reviewed.
Quinn said the bills were introduced after the “disturbing accounts of mishandling DNA evidence.” The two legislative items – which both passed by a vote of 44-0 – “aim to enhance accountability, reporting and transparency mechanisms in the OCME so that incidents like these do not happen again,” a Council press release said.
Under the new legislation, the medical examiner’s office will be required to create a committee and conduct an analysis of incidents that affect the accuracy and integrity of evidence. These reports, known as a “root cause analysis” are aimed to focus on overall failures and do not target individual or human error. The findings are reported to the City Council and Mayor’s Office, as well as the prosecutors and defense attorneys in affected cases. Quinn said the results would also be posted online for the public’s review.
Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief at The Legal Aid Society, said the root cause analysis “provides a framework for reporting problems within the lab’s work.” In a letter supporting the bills, Banks wrote that the medical examiner’s office had a “demonstrated history of poor management when errors are discovered.”
The second statute passed by the Council requires the medical examiner to post data on the proficiency of lab workers and information concerning procedures and standards used in their DNA lab. “Making such data public represents a critical step forward by improving transparency in the criminal justice process,” said Council Member Julissa Ferreras, the bill’s sponsor.
The legislation will now move forward for the Mayor’s signature to change the bills to law and require the agency’s compliance.
A spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office, Ellen Borakove, released the following statement: “The OCME engages in best practices, including root cause analysis, and this additional level of transparency will ensure the full confidence of the public."