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  • Writer's pictureStephen Hanks

Postgrad degrees increase the professionalism of the Coroner and the public service to the community

The Larimer County Coroner’s Office has been led for decades by coroners with postgraduate degrees, specifically Doctors of Medicine (M.D.). However, the duties of the coroner expand beyond the medical field, and other postgraduate degrees would provide a strong benefit to the office and our community. Additionally, the future of the Larimer County Coroner’s Office will no longer be led by a medical doctor, as the current Coroner is not running for re-election.

The Larimer County Coroner’s Office has a forensic pathologist to perform autopsies and oversee the medical role of the office, having a coroner with other postgraduate degrees adds to the professionalism of the entire office. I hold both a Master of Science in criminology and Juris Doctor degrees which were aimed at improving my education and experience in performing the duties of Coroner in a way that best serves our community.

1. My Master’s Degree gives me the skills to apply a holistic approach to death investigations.

My Master’s Degree is in criminology, where I focused specifically on biosocial criminology and brain development. Biosocial criminology explores the sociological, environmental, and biological factors impacting brain development throughout a person’s life course. I was

particularly interested in the development of, and injuries to, the prefrontal cortex of the brain which controls impulses and regulates emotions. Reduced impulse control and dysregulation of emotions is a common theme in substance abuse, suicide, aggressive behavior, dangerous driving, and other events with fatal outcomes.

Having knowledge of how a person’s life history may have impacted their cognitive functioning allows me to investigate more holistically, and not focus solely on the singular fatal event. This holistic approach gives me the skills to work more empathetically with families, building trust and rapport which is essential to excellent public service and care.

2. My Law Degree gives me the skills to run the office, interact within local government, and partner with the community in a highly professional and ethical manner.

A law degree is also referred to as a juris doctorate (J.D.) and while some people go to law school to become practicing attorneys, others choose a route known as a J.D. advantage. The creative problem-solving and analytical talents fostered in law school are highly appreciated in a variety of careers across government, compliance and ethics, contract management, data privacy, and many more. [1] I chose a legal education path which best suited my goal of running the Coroner’s Office in a manner that is collaborative, cooperative, and focused on being a strong partner in the community.

A. Courses in Accounting, Contracts, and Privacy Law are important to the daily operations of the office.

Understanding Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and contracts is an important part of the office’s budgeting practices. The Larimer County Coroner’s Office must submit a budget for approval by the county commissioners every year, so thorough analysis of current financial conditions and future needs of the office is an essential practice. Another consideration in the budget is the contracts for service the Coroner’s Office has with other counties across Colorado and Wyoming who rely on our Coroner’s Office for their autopsies. The Coroner should have education and experience in assessing various contracts and the ability to fairly negotiate contracts in the future.

A knowledge of privacy law and data protection is essential to providing quality public service that involves keeping the public and decisionmakers informed while protecting personally identifiable information. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) guide how government offices respond to requests for information. A Coroner knowledgeable and skilled at navigating this legal realm will garner trust and respect from a community needing access to information to accomplish their missions, while also maintaining the trust of families who rely on the Coroner to protect their sensitive information and human dignity.

The education and skills from a law school education will greatly benefit the day-to-day operations of the Coroner’s Office.

B. Courses in Alternative Dispute Resolution, Negotiation and Mediation, Trusts and Estates, and Family Law are focused on skills of cooperation, collaboration, and creative problem-solving.

Partnering in the community and across local government requires a mindset based on cooperation and collaboration in order to develop creative solutions to issues in our community. Not all of law school is focused on litigation and adversarial behaviors. In fact many successful practitioners avoid court because they are highly skilled at problem solving and dispute resolution through cooperation.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), and Negotiation and Mediation were two of my favorite law school courses. These courses emphasized using active listening techniques and empathy in building trust and rapport. It is important to me that the office has the trust of the community before tragedy strikes. Once we are on scene for a death investigation or notification it is too late to begin the trust building process, that time should be reserved for reaffirming that trust through our actions and integrity.

Family Law, and Trusts and Estates were two courses that really emphasized the creativity in the legal practice. Dealing with trusts and estates, especially with the complexities of common-law marriage can be very difficult and involve heated emotions. Knowing the basics of these issues and being up to date on current case law will help the Coroner’s Office appropriately navigate issues surrounding next-of-kin notification and funeral home arrangements.

Family Law was another course of law I really succeeded in because of the freedom to negotiate creative solutions, and my experiences working with families experiencing heavy emotions related to tragic circumstances. While my experiences involve families navigating the death of loved ones, family law involves heavy emotions surrounding the dissolution of marriage and allocation of parenting time and responsibilities. Using active listening, I am able to navigate these emotions, and through application of alternative dispute resolution skills I am able to reach a mutual understanding and develop a solution that accurately accounts for the facts while satisfying everyone’s needs.

Partnering in the community and within local government requires a Coroner who is cooperative and collaborative, and able to work towards creative solutions under a variety of circumstances. My education and experiences will benefit the Coroner’s Office, the community, and local government.

[1] JD Advantage Career Guide, National Association for Law Placement (Spring ed. 2020).

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