HELENA – Bryan Backeberg says his responsibilities as Lewis and Clark County coroner went beyond simply investigating deaths – from managing death certificates and other official documents to supervising his employees’ training.
“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes that people don’t see,” he said.
Now, Backeberg will no longer be responsible for those administrative duties. On Jan. 1, he ended his time as coroner – just over two years after being appointed.
In December 2017, county commissioners voted to combine the coroner’s office with the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Leo Dutton was reelected in November, this time as the first consolidated sheriff-coroner. He will take over many of the coroner’s administrative responsibilities.
“My job is to be the coroner: field the questions, make sure that the work gets done, make sure that the employees have the tools they need, the education they need and the supervision,” Dutton said.
As of Jan. 1, the coroner’s office has become the Coroner’s Division, operating under Dutton and Capt. Brent Colbert, LCSO’s newly appointed special operations captain. Backeberg will remain on staff, now as a lead deputy coroner. His previous employees – a deputy coroner and an evidence technician – will also stay on.
In addition, four sheriff’s deputies have gone through training to serve as deputy coroners. Dutton said that includes the residential deputies in Lincoln and Augusta and two detectives in the Helena area. He and three of his command staff also went through the training.
Before the consolidation, Backeberg and his deputy coroner worked regular shifts and were on call the rest of the time. Dutton said they will remain on those shifts, though one will eventually work earlier in the day and another will work later. The newly trained deputies will also be on call part of the time. They will only respond to coroner’s calls when they are off their regular shift.
“I’m trying to avoid shorting the existing patrol shift, because we run at a bare minimum,” said Dutton.
When a deputy responds as a deputy coroner, they are not acting as a law enforcement officer. Dutton said they will not wear their standard uniform, though their clothes will have a clear indication that they are representing the Coroner’s Division.
They will also have different authority and responsibilities. Coroners are tasked with determining the cause and manner of a death, and Dutton said they are able to search without a warrant for evidence that can help them make that determination. If deputies acting as coroners come across evidence of criminal activity, Dutton said they should stop their investigation, report their findings and request a search warrant.
“The job is different, the laws are different, and you have to be careful about who you’re representing when you’re on the job,” he said.
Backeberg said the coroner’s office had a heavy workload for only two trained coroners to handle, especially when calls came from areas like Lincoln and Augusta.
“Some days, there were 48 hours of straight no sleep – taking care of a scene, the deceased, getting them to an autopsy, getting them back, getting them to a funeral home, getting the needed information that we need – and on top of that, we’re supposed to be presentable to families or the public,” Backeberg said.
He said he’s hopeful the additional staffing will relieve some of the pressure and burnout.
“That’s been my biggest push moving forward with the consolidation: taking care of ourselves, before we can take care of another family,” he said.
After the consolidation, the Coroner’s Division will remain at its current office on Rodney Street, at least for now. On Thursday, the Lewis and Clark County Commission will consider a proposal to end the lease on that space by May, and move the coroner into the new Law and Justice Center on Fuller Avenue.
Both Dutton and Backeberg say they want to ensure there’s no change in the coroner’s commitment to compassion and serving families in need.
“As this transition takes place, please give us some grace,” Dutton said. “We will continue the same great service that you’re receiving now. We will have nuances that we work through as reports and things like that happen, but we hope that you do not notice any break in service, and the plan will work.”
There will be one major change in the newly consolidated office. According to state law, the county coroner must hold an inquest whenever a person dies while in law enforcement custody or in an officer-involved shooting. However, the law also prohibits a coroner who is a law enforcement officer from conducting inquests in those cases. That means, in the future, Lewis and Clark County will have to bring in a dedicated coroner from another county.
Earlier this year, Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Coroner Jessie Billquist-Jette presided over an inquest in a case involving Lewis and Clark County deputies, after Backeberg recused himself due to a conflict.
At least 41 of Montana’s 56 counties have consolidated their sheriff and coroner’s offices. Lewis and Clark and Fergus Counties are beginning the consolidation in 2019.