Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Medical Examiner Abruptly Retires

Dr. Brian Peterson, who faced some controversies, leaves without making a statement.

By - Sep 20th, 2022 01:02 pm
Dr. Brian L. Peterson. Photo courtesy of the Medical Society of Milwaukee County.

Dr. Brian L. Peterson. Photo courtesy of the Medical Society of Milwaukee County.

Milwaukee County Chief Medical Examiner Brian L. Peterson abruptly retired Monday.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley released a statement Monday evening announcing that Peterson, who has served in the role for more than a decade, had retired effective immediately. 

“On behalf of Milwaukee County, I offer my deepest gratitude to Dr. Peterson for his many years of work and service,” Crowley said. “I wish him and his family a healthy and fulfilling retirement.”

Asked whether Crowley knew of Petersen’s intentions to retire, a spokesperson for the county executive said, “My understanding is that he found out yesterday.”

Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Wieslawa Tlomak will serve as interim-chief medical examiner.

As medical examiner, Peterson was among the highest-paid county employees. He was appointed medical examiner in 2010 by then Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. He came into the role after being named interim-chief medical examiner after the former chief, Dr. Christopher Happy, resigned. Peterson joined the office in 2008 after working in the Waukesha County Medical Examiner’s office.

An email sent to Peterson’s county email Tuesday morning seeking comment on his decision to retire has not received a reply.

During Peterson’s tenure, the medical examiner’s office saw two spikes in homicides in the City of Milwaukee. The first peaking in 2015 and the second ongoing, with the county on track to see a record number of homicides for the third year in a row.

Peterson also saw the fallout from the opioid epidemic at the medical examiner’s office during his time in Milwaukee County. Most recently, the office has been seeing the massive increase in overdose deaths caused by the increasing use and availability of synthetic opioids like Fentanyl.

Before retiring Peterson had been working to secure a new building for the medical examiner’s office. He went before a county task force earlier this month seeking $20 million for a new forensic science center and was frank about the current facility’s problems. “People just don’t appreciate the cockroaches and the limited space and the crumbling infrastructure and all that,” he said. “It’s frankly unpleasant. When you can walk into our front lobby and smell decomposed bodies on a lot of days, that’s just not good.”

He said that there is a shortage of forensic pathologists nationwide and that medical examiners offices are struggling to fill positions. The county’s facility, in its poor state, would make it difficult to remain competitive when searching for forensic pathologists, he said.

Peterson’s tenure overlapped with the rise of the movement for Black lives and increased scrutiny of cause of death rulings for people that die in police custody. 

The first high-profile case came in 2012, when Derek Williams died while in the custody of the Milwaukee Police Department. Williams died in the back of an MPD squad car after repeatedly telling officers he couldn’t breathe.

Peterson’s office initially stated the cause of death was due to natural causes, later revising their finding to say the cause of death was homicide. Williams’ death led to a series of policy changes in the medical examiner’s office, which now require all high-profile cases, such as police custody deaths, be reviewed by a panel of all the pathologists in the office, including the chief medical examiner. The office is also now required to obtain additional evidence including police reports and videos when making a determination of cause of death.

Derek Williams was among three Black men whose deaths in police custody Peterson attributed to sickle cell trait or “sickle cell crisis,” which generated national controversy and coverage by the New York Times in 2021, with experts suggesting sickle cell trait rarely caused death. In an interview with Urban Milwaukee, Peterson called the Times story “bullshit” and insisted that the sickle cell trait, when combined with enough physiological stress, can cause death.

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Categories: MKE County, Weekly

One thought on “MKE County: County Medical Examiner Abruptly Retires”

  1. gerrybroderick says:

    Dr. Peterson and his overworked staff have done exemplary work despite having to deal with cramped and extremely outdated facilities; an unbelievable workload and, when it comes to remedy, an unsympathetic political structure.

    I think it is reasonable to assume that the lack approval and funding of a new facility is an essential component of the reason for Dr. Peterson’s abrupt resignation. This issue has languished for decades. Time to solve it.

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