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SF office that handles dead bodies wasn’t fully accredited for a decade

San Francisco’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner says it is now working faster and hiring more staff. | Courtesy SF Medical Examiner’s Office

A department that performs autopsies on the city’s dead bodies is now fully accredited for the first time in a decade.

The San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner became fully accredited in November, according to the City Administrator’s Office.

The accreditation amounts to an endorsement by a national professional organization.

The medical examiner is responsible for performing autopsies and releasing information about those who died suddenly or under suspicious circumstances to their families and the public.

Medical examiners differ from coroners in that they are licensed physicians, independent of law enforcement, while coroners are typically associated with the Sheriff’s Department.

The San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office in the Bayview. | Google Streetview

The professional organization that awards accreditation, Inspection and Accreditation Committee at the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), inspects the office to make sure it is working efficiently, according to Barbara Wolf, chair of NAME.

The San Francisco medical examiner’s office had been issued a provisional accreditation last year, and had no accreditation between 2017 and 2021. It was not issued accreditation as it failed to submit inspection material on time, said Wolf. From 2013 to 2017, the office was provisionally accredited.

Carrying out the office’s work quickly and efficiently is important for the families of the deceased, according to Christopher Liverman, San Francisco’s Chief Medical Examiner.

“It benefits the city’s residents because we are closing cases promptly to bring closure to decedent’s families and their loved ones. That’s important,” Liverman said in an email.

Under NAME’s standards, a medical examiner’s office can be either fully accredited, meaning there are no major issues impacting the office’s duties, or provisionally accredited, meaning there are no more than five major issues.

Becoming fully accredited required the San Francisco medical examiner’s office to hire more staff and eliminate a backlog of “hundreds of cases,” according to the City Administrator’s Office.

The city’s medical examiner’s office has faced controversy in the past, including a backlog in death examinations, with half of them taking more than six months to complete and some taking more than a year, according to a 2013 investigation by The San Francisco Chronicle.

In August 2020, a lab analyst for the medical examiner’s office was arrested in Utah after he was pulled over for speeding and found in possession of methamphetamine and other drug paraphernalia.

Liverman said in a press release that his focus has been to speed up the office’s work.

“When I started at the [office] 18 months ago, we instituted policy changes designed to streamline the completion of forensic studies, in order to help bring closure to the families of San Francisco,” said Liverman. “This milestone is confirmation that the policies, in conjunction with the city’s investment, are working.”

When asked about the past controversies at the important city office, Liverman said that the latest full accreditation status highlights significant improvements in professional and ethical standards.

“Full NAME accreditation is a third-party endorsement that [means] we meet the strictest national standards and do so with the highest degree of ethics, excellence and empathy. San Francisco deserves it, and the public should demand that of us,” Liverman said.

The office’s full accreditation will expire in November 2025.

Garrett Leahy can be reached at