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They are going into bad areas’: These San Francisco city workers want guns

Tom McDonald, chief investigator with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, wants to arm his staff with guns for safety reasons. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

An hour after his son shot and killed himself, a grieving dad held a pistol in his hand as his wife pinned him to a bed and his other children pleaded with him.

“You don’t want to do this,” one kid said. “We need you.”

San Francisco death investigator Kris Barbrich was at the house to tell the family about the son’s suicide when the father pulled out the gun.

With no gun to protect himself if the man turned the weapon on him, Barbrich averted any further bloodshed by grabbing the pistol from the father’s hand, according to court records reviewed by The Standard.

Every day, investigators with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner go to homes in San Francisco to tell bereaved people that their loved ones have died—not knowing how the families will respond.

Sometimes, people appear ready to commit suicide. Other times, investigators say they talk to family members without realizing that the person they are speaking with will later become a suspect in a homicide.

These are just some of the reasons why these death investigators, who are also sworn peace officers, want to carry firearms on the job at a time when staffing issues inside their office—and on the police force—mean they are often the only ones at death scenes.

Medical examiner staff take a gurney to their van. | Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

While the office has 14 sworn investigators on staff, there were only seven investigators on duty in all of San Francisco as of Wednesday because people are out on injury or other leave, according to people inside the office.

The staffing issues come as the office is swamped by a fentanyl epidemic that continues to grip San Francisco, where preliminary data shows there were 268 accidental overdose deaths in the first four months of the year—a 37% increase over 2022. Of those deaths, 211 were believed to have involved fentanyl.

While the two biggest law enforcement unions in San Francisco support arming investigators, the city is against it.

David Serrano Sewell, executive director of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, recognized the safety needs of investigators while emphasizing that his agency is civilian-led and “not a law enforcement agency.”

“Our concentration is on the medical, factual and scientific aspects of death investigations rather than engaging in active law enforcement activities or to facilitate a criminal prosecution,” Serrano Sewell told The Standard in an email. “As a result, there are no plans to change our guidelines to permit Medical Examiner Investigators to carry firearms while on duty.”

The policy banning guns, Serrano Sewell said, “aligns with the practices of other medical examiner systems” and is designed to “maintain the OCMEs’ integrity and impartiality and ensure the public's confidence in our work.”

David Serrano Sewell, executive director of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, poses for a portrait. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Tom McDonald, San Francisco’s chief death investigator and a proponent of arming his staff, said safety issues are not a new part of the job. In his 20 years with the office, he has never been allowed to carry on duty.

The first time he responded to a death scene, McDonald said he and his partner were alone in a residential hotel room with drug paraphernalia and a dead body when they realized the deceased was strangled. The suspected killer, he said, turned out to be a janitor who was still in the building.

“This has been happening for years, and until one of us gets killed, no one is going to do anything about it,” McDonald told The Standard. “I don't have enough investigators to lose. I only have seven guys, and I can’t afford to lose one due to injury or somebody getting killed on the job.”

McDonald said the most high-risk part of the job is telling families that someone died. Whenever possible, his investigators make the notifications in person. That can mean knocking on a door at 2 a.m.

But having a gun isn’t just about protection. McDonald argues that carrying while on duty can also make people treat investigators with more respect.

“It sounds weird,” McDonald acknowledged. “Why would you need a gun to talk to a family member? But it does have a calming effect.”

Tom McDonald, chief investigator with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, stands for a portrait at his home in Pacifica. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

How many investigators actually staff the office depends on how they're counted.

Serrano Sewell said his office has 15 investigators, including one who is not a sworn peace officer but can still perform many of the same duties. He said there were nine investigators available for duty as of Thursday and that there will be 10 available as of Monday.

Whether death investigators carry firearms elsewhere in California varies. Officials in both Los Angeles and San Mateo counties, for instance, said their death investigators were not armed, while an Alameda County official said their investigators are required to carry firearms as sworn peace officers.

San Francisco investigators say California law allows them to carry guns, but they need permission from their bosses to be armed on duty.

They have the support of both the San Francisco Police Officers Association and the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.

Ken Lomba, head of the deputy sheriff’s union, said investigators should have guns to protect both themselves and others.

“Not all areas of San Francisco are nice and safe,” Lomba said. “They are going into bad areas, areas where there’s crime.”

​​If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Or go here for more resources.

Editor's Note: This story was updated with additional staffing figures provided by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner after publication.

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com