Overhaul at Cook Co. Medical Examiner's Office

January 26, 2012 8:24:43 PM PST
In the wake of devastating photos revealed by the I-Team showing hundreds of bodies haphazardly stacked up at the Cook County morgue, there will be a top to bottom restructuring of the medical examiner's office.

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle made the announcement at a hastily called news conference at the morgue. Saying she was disturbed and discouraged, Preckwinkle described a complete overhaul of the operations of the medical examiner's office.

Preckwinkle said employees will lose their jobs and the handling of remains will be revamped. Read Preckwinkle's Changes (PDF)

However, Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones will remain in that position according to Preckwinkle. Conspicuously though, Jones did not participate in the news conference.

"I'm the president of the county and it is most appropriate for me to comment on county operations," Preckwinkle said.

Prior to announcing the retooling, Preckwinkle met with morgue employees and personally inspected the cooler where remains are stored. Nearly 400 bodies over-capacity are still at the morgue, according to officials.

"We're going to be conducting a top to bottom review of operations here both internally and there will be this investigation by the office of the inspector general," Preckwinkle said.

In addition to a "reorganization of senior management" that could affect Dr. Jones, new policies will put a time limit on how long bodies may be held at the morgue. There will also be mandatory retraining for morgue technicians and procedures to deal with "customer service."

That change addresses a report by the I-Team on Wednesday night. The story focused on a body that was essentially missing in the morgue for several weeks, according to the man's relatives. The south suburban family said that officials at the medical examiner's office repeatedly said they did not have their loved one's remains-even though the body was in the morgue all along.

Morgue officials on Thursday downplayed the family's allegations, suggesting that there was simple confusion over the man's name.

The overhaul of morgue operations will also feature new, strict disciplinary measures that would be imposed on poorly-performing employees.

There are two separate government investigations related to this situation. Officials with the Illinois Department of Labor say they are currently investigating morgue employee complaints about dangerous workplace conditions. Labor department officials say since 2010 they have received five similar safety complaints from morgue workers.

The second investigation is by the Cook County inspector general. County sources say the inspector general was summoned by Dr. Nancy Jones to determine which employee took the photographs and leaked them to ABC7. Even though that county whistleblower has prompted change, Preckwinkle was critical of the tactic.

"Dealing this way brings discredit to me, to all county employees and particularly people on the medical examiner's staff and there are lots of good people who work here. So I can't understand why a staff member who would go to the media instead of dealing with it internally," Preckwinkle said.

Several hundred bodies remain in a cooler at the morgue, many of them indigent. They will be buried next month.

While problems at the morgue have offended many, some in the city's religious community say they are outraged and plan to let the county know they will be closely watching how this is handled.

"It's embarrassing to know that this can happen," said Rev. Marshall Hatch of New Mt. Pilgrim Church.

On Friday, two protests will take place at the Cook County Morgue. One community group is calling for the immediate resignation of Dr. Jones and the other, a group of pastors, will pray for what they call a "national embarrassment," a "pile of bodies" in the "downtown shadow of a world class city."