The Bergen County Police Department began to investigate all unattended and suspicious deaths in 1985. When performing death investigations the officers in this unit “wear two hats”- meaning that their death investigations are done under the auspices of the Bergen County Medical Examiner. The purpose of the Medical Examiner Investigative Unit is to assist the Medical Examiner (ME) by acquiring vital information and evidence in cases where a definitive cause of death could not be determined, or where circumstances require a ME investigation.
The Investigator who responds to a scene must keep an open mind, assessing everything about the situation, not only what seems suspicious but also what seems mundane. It is the ME Investigator who determines which direction an investigation will proceed. Depending on the facts gathered this could mean a case requires the notification or response of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Homicide Squad, Fatal Accident Unit or any of several specialized squads or agencies. Investigators work with a fascinating array of people and professions.
Over the years the average number of yearly cases the Bergen County Medical Examiner’s Office handles has been about two thousand. Many of these are investigated by telephonic interviews done by the Medical Examiner’s Office during daytime office hours and by the Bergen County Police Desk during other hours, weekends and holidays. The Investigators respond to hundreds of scene investigations each year, grabbing a scene kit and heading out in all hours.
Investigators complete comprehensive training, usually at the St Louis University Medical School, which has a premier program. Training is also done in-house with the Bergen County Medical Examiner, at continuing education programs and with the New Jersey State Medical Examiner’s Office. It is an ongoing endeavor.
The Medical Examiner Investigative Unit provides a service that all New Jersey county and regional medical examiners provide. Bergen County is unique in that the investigative function does not require hiring a separate staff and is handled as a specialty by a select group of Bergen County Police officers.
Among other qualities, the work of the Medical Examiner’s office requires discretion. This type of investigation was once rarely spoken of outside of the office but, with today’s interest in all things “CSI”, there is a greater awareness of this type of work. The members of this unit consider themselves to be extremely lucky to not only have a career in a foremost law enforcement organization but to also work in this fascinating field.