CALEA Update Magazine | Issue 105
Investigating Public Safety Vehicle Collisions
The headline on the front page of your local newspaper reads, “Police Vehicle Involved in Fatal Crash.” When this happens, what comes next is a much larger concern to all law enforcement agencies ─ investigating the collision.
At any given time, law enforcement officers everywhere utilize the mobile patrol function to enforce the law, pursue criminals, handle traffic situations, and in dire circumstances, rush to the aid of an officer requesting assistance. In these situations and many more, law enforcement agencies must weigh the cost of enforcing our nation’s laws, and simultaneously protect its citizens. The weather, time of day, or day of the week is not a concern until an event occurs which can ignite condemnation and questions the ability of the involved officer or law enforcement agency to adequately and impartially investigate the incident. For the police executive, this can be more than just problematic. The overall agency reputation is in question.
Accidents involving public safety vehicles are particularly tragic. The vehicle operator instantly becomes a victim, instead of a caregiver or public servant. Compound this with the possibility of additional injuries to pedestrians and damage to property and the costs can be astronomical. The risks are increased exponentially by the use of lights and sirens to navigate the roadways in an emergency.
The initial training for operation of public safety vehicles is just a baseline. It is critical that agencies provide ongoing driver training at a higher skill level than for other types of drivers. The reality is that in a collision, the public safety vehicle operator may be injured or killed, or may cause injury or death to others. The consequences of collision may include disciplinary action, traffic or criminal charges, civil lawsuits, or all three for the officer and agency.
Many agencies have polices and procedures which address who conducts the investigation. There is frequently little information, however, on how to properly conduct the investigation of a public safety vehicle involved collision. It is recommended that agency policy include this information, and require the same person complete all of the required reports to insure continuity and uniformity.
The agency should be cognizant that officer involved crashes are of great media interest. Accordingly, investigative protocols should be strictly followed. These protocols should involve accident scene preservation; confidentiality of names of accident victims prior to immediate family notification; and preparation of a deliberately prepared a press release.
The traditional procedure for a majority of law enforcement agencies is to complete reports and conduct investigations of all public safety vehicle involved traffic collisions according to their respective policies. In Ohio, under Ohio Revised Code 5502.11 “Every law enforcement agency representing a township, county, municipal corporation, or other political subdivision investigating a motor vehicle accident involving a fatality, personal injury, or property damage in an amount greater than $400.00 shall within five days, forward a written report of such accident to the director of public safety on a form which the director shall adopt subject to sections 119.01 to 119.13 of the Ohio Revised Code.”
A traffic accident can be defined as “A road vehicle accident in which (1) the unstabilized situation originates on a trafficway or (2) a harmful event occurs on a traffic way.”
Investigation of a traffic collision includes examining and recording the results of the collision, and obtaining additional information that may not be immediately available. That information concerning the operator, vehicle, and traffic way is recorded on an organized, largely self explanatory form which may include factual data on supplementary report forms used for special purposes. Initially, the investigation should involve determining how the collision occurred. This is accomplished through an analysis based upon all of the available evidence gathered at the scene or during the follow-up investigation. It is crucial that detailed photographs, accurate measurements and scaled drawings be completed. This information invariably determines not just how, but why the collision occurred. Many law enforcement agencies believe that the need for further investigation depends upon the nature and extent of the traffic collision. It is important to note that all collisions should be thoroughly investigated. The public is constantly monitoring the knowledge, skills, and abilities of law enforcement agencies and their personnel. With this in mind, the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy (OPOTA) conducts diverse program options for traffic investigation for the law enforcement professional.
The decision for further investigation is most often made by the officer or supervisor on the scene. Departmental policy and officer discretion may also lead to additional investigation. Law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to thoroughly and completely investigate and reconstruct certain traffic collisions, particularly when a felony crime is suspected.
A properly conducted reconstruction of the event should be initiated. The reconstruction of a traffic collision is a highly technical investigation. It includes interpreting evidence from the collision scene, and applying mathematical computations to determine causation factors. The public’s confidence in a fair an impartial investigation is mandatory, particularly when pedestrians are injured and/or property is damaged. The public’s distrust can be transferred to other types of investigations, resulting in a loss of confidence in the law enforcement agency and profession.
Several steps can be taken to diffuse this perception: (1) a strong policy and procedure which clearly specifies the circumstances when and who shall investigate traffic collisions involving public safety vehicles; and (2) a policy and procedure that requires a concurrent investigation conducted by an outside agency when death or serious injury is involved. Mutual aid agreements can be utilized when outside investigation is warranted. Law enforcement benefits when a competent, fair and impartial investigation is completed.
The law enforcement agency must recognize the direct and indirect costs associated with public safety vehicle collisions. Direct costs include personnel, equipment, fuel, and time. Indirect costs include traffic congestion and delays from blocked lanes or closed roads while the collision is being investigated. The public remembers inconvenience which can damage the agency’s image.
Similarly, it is important that the public realizes that an investigation of a collision involving a public safety vehicle is a thorough and complicated process involving several governmental entities, all with an interest in an accurate outcome of the investigation.
Officers, supervisors, and administrators have different responsibilities in collision involving public safety vehicles. Miscommunication among them can negatively affect the outcome of the investigation. Consequently, professionalism and expertise of the officer and agency conducting the investigation must be thorough and comprehensive. Specialized training for crash investigators is imperative, as evidenced by the use of mathematical equations.
In summary, the following questions should be addressed in any investigation involving a public safety vehicle:
- Will the investigating officer conduct an unbiased review of the incident?
- Will the public view the investigation as a fair representation of the facts?
- Will an outside agency’s involvement make the process more transparent?
- Does the agency have a qualified accident investigator?
- Are there any known issues between the investigator and the involved officer which may create conflict of interest?
- Are there any conflicts or inconsistencies with Departmental Policy?
- Will the policy and investigation “stand up” in a trial?
Administrators universally recognize that citizens injured in a due to police misconduct are likely to seek redress through civil suit. Civil discovery may disclose personnel and training files for the entire department. Accordingly, accurate training files must be maintained, monitored and reviewed. Departmental policy should also address the use of Mobile Data Terminals (MDT), Radio Equipment and Mobile Phones. Improper use of this equipment can cause distractions leading to vehicle accidents.
Ultimately, the investigation and/or reconstruction of a public safety vehicle involved collision must answer the following questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, and much, much more!
Ron Thayer is a Law Enforcement Training Officer with Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy in London, Ohio. OPOTA has been CALEA Public Safety Training Academy accredited since July 2004. Under the leadership of Executive Director Robert Fiatal, OPOTA was selected as a CALEA Flagship Agency at the November 2010 conference in Garden Grove, California.