The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He spent years performing D.C.’s autopsies. Now, his job is to stop them from happening.

Roger Mitchell Jr. says he has realistic expectations about the success he’ll experience in his tenure as D.C.'s interim deputy mayor — but he hopes to build upon a public safety infrastructure that will lend itself to continuous improvement. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Roger Mitchell Jr.’s job hasn’t gotten any easier since he stepped in as D.C.'s chief medical examiner in 2014 — and this month it expanded significantly.

Homicides reached a decade-long high in 2019 and are on pace to soar further this year. Fatal drug overdoses have also risen sharply, exacerbated by conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

And now D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has appointed Mitchell as the city’s interim deputy mayor for public safety and justice. That means that in addition to his duties as the chief medical examiner, Mitchell will oversee D.C. police, Fire and Emergency Medical Services and the Department of Forensic Sciences, among others. Mitchell is hoping that his public health approach — which in recent years has included ministry inside prisons and calling for policy reforms to stymie violence in Black communities — will remedy some of the city’s most persistent issues as he assumes his new role.

“I’ve been at the table having discussions about how mortality impacts policy, but also how all health impacts what we should be doing from a policy standpoint,” said Mitchell, 46. “My goal is to put the medical examiner out of business.”

Mitchell says he’ll need synthesis and coordination among all city agencies to significantly reduce the number of killings and fatal overdoses. His plan to address violence as a public health issue means bolstering social programs while renewing the public’s trust in the police as purveyors of community safety.

Mitchell said he believes he may be the first medical examiner in history elevated to such a senior public safety role, and Sally Aiken, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, agreed. While it may be unprecedented, Mitchell and Aiken both argue the move isn’t much of a stretch — they say the ways medical examiners think about and process death using forensic pathology lends itself to public health initiatives.

“Medical examiners frequently are the first to recognize public health risks, such as flawed consumer products. Our offices keep data on which medications and illicit drugs are circulating in our communities, allowing us to recognize trends in drug deaths,” Aiken said. “We keep large amounts of data on firearm deaths and traffic fatality circumstances."

Using the lessons of the dead to save the living

A product of Howard University and the New Jersey Medical School, Mitchell previously worked as a medical examiner in Houston, New York and Newark, and as the regional medical examiner of New Jersey. He impressed D.C. officials shortly after becoming the city’s chief medical examiner, earning full accreditation for the office while finding novel ways to partner with police, community groups and local health officials.

Mitchell, a licensed minister at New Bethel Baptist Church in the Shaw neighborhood, has long viewed violence as a public health issue. He was one of several people — including D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt — to author a 2017 article that explored the violence epidemic in the Black community and the urgent need for more robust policies. The paper was published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, where Mitchell chairs the Task Force on Gun Violence. He said he hopes his interest in this area will lend itself to his new role in the District, where a crescendo in gun violence has led the mayor to ask every city agency to think of ways to stop it.

The 570 shootings reported in D.C. through mid-August are up 45 percent from the same period last year, according to D.C. police data. A total of 124 people had been killed through Aug. 27 — a 12 percent increase from the same period in 2019. While violent crime in the city is down overall, some of the killings have been especially brazen, including a mass shooting Aug. 9 that left a teenager dead, 21 people wounded and a police officer fighting for her life.

Solving issues with gun violence in D.C. has grown more complicated, officials say, amid heightened scrutiny of law enforcement by local residents, who in June and July watched officers clash with demonstrators protesting police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“As a scientist and physician, my job first is to get a good history and then perform an autopsy — then I establish a diagnosis,” said Mitchell, who replaced former deputy mayor Kevin Donahue after Donahue was elevated to acting city administrator. “So, really, when we’re talking about violence prevention, we’re talking about how to maximize and sustain access for communities. That’s the starting point for me.”

Mitchell says shootings and violence are symptoms of underlying economic disparity. He believes “violence interruption” programs — as well as access to education, health care and housing for D.C. families in need — will play a key factor in improving lives and quelling violence.

Just as a cardiologist might urge someone to exercise, or a doctor specializing in cancer would inform a patient about the risks of smoking, Mitchell has always viewed violence prevention as a crucial part of his work as a medical examiner. He says he learned to understand violence through a public health lens as a first-year medical student in 1997, when he volunteered as a rape crisis counselor and hotline worker for women who were sexually assaulted.

In describing his approach to combating violence, Mitchell likened it to the District’s all-hands response to covid-19. Nearly every sector of local government plays some role in trying to prevent the novel coronavirus’s spread, while business owners and individuals are tasked with maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.

For the District to resolve its issues, he said, all parties need to do their share.

He said it’s important for law enforcement agencies to be present in neighborhoods when there’s an opportunity to serve — not just when responding to a problem. Police must offer a sense of safety, to debunk perceptions they might enact violence against residents.

“How communities are policed, how we are responding to Fire/Emergency Medical Services, the impact of 911 and 311 on the community, and the conditions of our jails and returning citizens — all of that is a bit upstream from the mortality we see in the medical examiner’s office,” he said. “Now, we can help coordinate and hopefully improve upon how our community is engaged across this cluster.”

African American heroin users are dying rapidly in an opioid epidemic

Mitchell was endorsed by Donahue, his predecessor, as well as D.C. police Chief Peter Newsham and D.C. Council members Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). Allen wrote in a tweet that Mitchell “has provided leadership in our city across agencies fighting the opioid crisis, working to reduce maternal mortality, & saving lives from gun violence.”

Another person Mitchell has impressed over the years is D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), who called him one of the most “thoughtful medical examiners out there in the country.” He recalled Mitchell assisting the National Association of Attorneys General and separately helping the Department of Forensic Sciences earn its certification.

“Many times a week I see him at churches, community centers, and he’s a mentor at the D.C. jail,” Racine said. “He’s a person of immense substance and capacity.”

Mitchell says he has realistic expectations about the success he’ll experience in his tenure as interim deputy mayor — but hopes to build upon a public safety infrastructure that will lend itself to continuous improvement. Asked how he’ll continue to balance his new job with his current responsibilities, Mitchell laughed while adding, “with prayer and fasting.”

“I just pray that I can be impactful, that I don’t fall short,” he said. “If I’m to be honest, my goal is to not let the citizens of the District of Columbia down in whatever brief time I have to serve them."

Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.