Felony collision investigations require in-depth investigative work, as serious and fatal vehicle collisions occur on a daily basis, particularly in larger metropolitan areas and state highway patrols. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, reports that the department investigates dozens of accidents per day, many of which result in criminal charges.
The Centers for Disease Control reported 33,687 motor vehicle-related deaths in 2010 alone.
A felony collision investigation begins when detectives are alerted to a serious vehicle collision. In general, patrol officers at the scene, along with medical personnel, are responsible for determining whether to contact the felony collision investigative unit of a police department.
What is a Collision Investigation Unit?
Collision investigation units, which are part of a state public safety agency or local police or sheriff’s department, are specialized criminal investigation units that investigate the following types of vehicle collisions:
- Traffic fatalities/serious injuries
- Vehicular homicides
- Vehicular assaults
- Drug and/or alcohol related collisions (driving under the influence)
- Felony hit-and-run accidents
- Collisions that may need to be reconstructed for civil proceedings
- Collisions where hazard chemicals are released
- Collisions in which enforcement action is taken against one or more parties
It is up to patrol officers to alert detectives to the scene, based on specific call-out criteria. Once felony collision investigators arrive on the scene, the work begins.
The Scope of a Felony Collision Investigator’s Job
Felony collision detectives, who may be called to the scene at any time of the day or night, must complete a specific protocol upon arriving at the scene, including:
- Identifying tire marks, roadway gouges, etc.
- Inspecting all vehicles involved in the collision
- Locating and documenting scene evidence
- Mapping the scene with surveying equipment
- Taking photographs
Their work always involves responding to the scene, setting priorities once on the scene, and ensuring scene protection and scene preservation.
Often times, vehicle collision detectives require all or part of the roadway to be shut down to traffic as to protect evidence at the scene and maintain the safety of the investigators at the scene.
After the on-scene investigation is complete, vehicle collision investigators being their follow-up investigative work, which includes:
- Analyzing all collision-related electronic and computer data
- Interviewing drivers, victims, and witnesses
- Obtaining medical records
- Obtaining search warrants for evidence
- Working with computer experts to complete computer-aided diagramming and collision reconstruction
- Working with forensic scientists to process blood evidence and analyze evidence collected at the scene
Training for Felony Collision Investigative Work
As highly skilled police detectives, felony collision investigators likely spend the first part of their career learning the intricacies of this investigative specialty. In-service training is therefore likely a major part of working as a felony collision investigator.
To properly perform their job, vehicle collision detectives must have a deep understanding of why evidence is crucial to an accident investigation and the how’s and why’s the crash occurred.
Some of the topics covered for felony collision investigation training include:
- How to identify crash scene evidence and how to collect it
- Interpreting and analyzing collision-related evidence, including specific instruction on laser-based device for measuring evidence at the scene and downloading it to specialized mapping software
- Understanding the mathematical and physics formulas and concepts of collision reconstruction
- The analysis of real-world case studies involving collisions involving automobiles, motorcycles, and trucks
- Understanding the latest technologies such as ABS brakes, stability control, electronic data recorders, etc.
It is typical, particularly in larger police departments, to employ a number of vehicle collision specialists who combine their technical abilities and knowledge with their investigative skills to meticulously reconstruct the scene of a vehicle collision. Vehicle collision detectives may be experts in specialized equipment and software, such as high-definition three-dimensional laser scanners, which are used to record and preserve evidence and present it within a courtroom setting. As such, the salary of a vehicle collision investigator is often directly related to the police professional’s expertise and/or experience.
Other police departments/agencies often require the completion of specific levels of training for its felony collision investigators, with training levels ranging from basic on-scene accident investigation to traffic accident reconstruction and computer-aided traffic accident reconstruction. In addition, specific accident investigation training may include accidents involving commercial motor vehicles, railroad crossings, motorcycles, or pedestrians.