The number of people suspected of having met unnatural deaths is on the rise, as the police dealt with some 160,000 “suspicious corpses” in 2009 — about 1.4 times more than 10 years before. But the nation suffers from a chronic shortage of experts who can examine such bodies.

The shortage of forensic examiners and doctors who can conduct autopsies could result in attributing crime-related deaths to other causes like illness. In and after 1998, there were 39 cases in which the police first determined that the deaths were not crime-related but then decided later they were caused by crime. Drugs apparently caused death in 11 of the cases.

In 2007, the Aichi prefectural police first determined that a young sumo wrestler died of illness, but after an autopsy conducted at his family’s request, they determined that he was beaten to death by other wrestlers.

In 2009, forensic experts who can examine corpses were dispatched to 20.3 percent of the locations where the bodies of people suspected of having died unnatural deaths were discovered. A study panel at the National Police Agency proposed July 15, as a short-term goal, that the dispatch rate be raised to 50 percent.

At present, 221 forensic examiners are stationed at prefectural police headquarters across the nation. To achieve the goal, the panel calls for roughly tripling their number to 653. In 2009, autopsies were conducted on 10.1 percent of the suspicious corpses handled by the police. Based on this figure, one estimate says that the police every year mistake some 1,700 crime-related deaths for deaths not caused by crime.

The panel hopes to increase the autopsy rate to 20 percent in the near future, but has not spelled out concrete steps to meet the goal. It also calls for conducting drug checks on all corpses dealt with by the police.

Not only the police but also other organizations such as the health ministry, the education ministry, local governments and doctors’ associations must join discussions on how to improve the system to detect crime-related deaths.

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