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Officers and prosecutor complete Advance Crash Investigation course

Math intensive course teaches how to piece together what happened in vehicular crashes

Police DUI Task Force Sgt. Nick Krau (right) and Vehicle Homicide Unit investigator Alvin Ota (left) are among 22 officers, including some from the Hawaii County Police Department, and a deputy prosecutor in an Advanced Crash Investigation class Thursday at the Kihei Police Station. The Maui News/LILA FUJIMOTO photos

KIHEI — As police officers and a deputy prosecutor grappled with the math, science and physics behind reconstructing a traffic collision, police said the complex calculations would add up to better investigation and prosecution in fatal and near-fatal collisions.

“This class is much needed,” police traffic commander Lt. William Hankins said Thursday, as officers were completing the two-week Advanced Crash Investigation course at the Kihei Police Station. “This training is the basis for all crash investigation.

“Fatal crashes happen in milliseconds. The investigation takes weeks and weeks and months and months, and this is why. They can’t do it without this training.”

The 40-hour class was the second phase of the training that began June 7 with two weeks of At Scene Crash Investigation, when students looked at damage to vehicles and examined marks and other evidence left on the roadway by a crash.

That led into the advanced crash investigation class using formulas for such calculations as speed at the point of impact and momentum to help track vehicle movements during and after impact.

Police traffic officers, including (from left) solo bike officer Jun Hattori, Vehicle Homicide Unit Sgt. Kenneth Kihata and solo bike officer James Taylor (with camera), investigate the scene of a fatal crash May 6 on Waiehu Beach Road.

“That can give us a lot of information on how the crash occurred,” said instructor Michael Snow, a retired Indianapolis Police Department officer now with the Institute for Police Technology and Management. “We can determine who was the driver and who was the passenger.”

With computers in vehicles storing data during a collision, “that gives us a lot of information, but it doesn’t give us everything,” Snow said.

He helped run the training by the institute, which is part of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

“It’s very math intense,” he said, incorporating geometry, trigonometry and physics.

In the past, police have sent officers, a few at a time, to similar training in Honolulu.

With a state Department of Transportation grant paying the $97,500 cost to have the training on Maui for the first time, police traffic officers were joined by three patrol officers and eight Hawaii County Police Department officers.

Some officers, including Vehicle Homicide Unit Sgt. Kenneth Kihata and DUI Task Force Sgt. Nick Krau, have completed the training before.

“There’s advancements in technology for continuing the investigations and more data and information we can retrieve,” Krau said. “It’s always important to get as many answers as we can when investigating traffic crashes, especially when a fatality is involved.”

Kihata said the class was “a little easier, but still hard,” with some new formulas and new technology including drone mapping.

While the basic training remains the same, Snow said changes are made to factor in new technology in vehicles, such as anti-lock brakes that affect the visibility of skid marks. “Every time they come up with a new safety device, we have to change our training a little bit to compensate for it,” Snow said.

DUI Task Force officer Rahul Mehra said the training will allow him to do more at crash scenes.

Along with his current job of working to prevent crashes, “it brings it all together,” Mehra said.

“You can figure out so much about what happened before the crash just from the evidence you find at the crash,” he said. “You can figure out if the person was paying attention or not.”

With mathematical formulas, even the speed of pedestrians can be calculated, Mehra said. “It’s going really deep into a crash,” he said.

Kihei patrol officer Cody Tetzloff said patrol officers are often focused on moving vehicles off the roadway and don’t have time to dissect minor crash scenes.

After learning about the value of skid marks and displaced debris, he said he would be able to gauge how fast a vehicle was going, in comparison with what someone says.

“Math has always been my strong subject in school,” said Tetzloff, who has been interested in traffic investigation.

“After taking this class, it’s only cemented that this is something I want to do,” he said. “It’s been difficult, but it’s been a very eye-opening experience as to all the elements that go into a traffic collision.”

Wailuku patrol officer Skylar Falite said he will look at debris on the road and other evidence he might not have noticed in the past while responding to collisions multiple times a week.

“Before, I wouldn’t think too much about the crash,” he said. “I’d just take people’s words. Now we can take evidence, skid marks, determine the speed, validate people’s statements.”

“I enjoy traffic enforcement, keeping the roads safe,” said Falite, who often makes impaired-driving arrests.

While he won’t be doing on-scene crash investigations, Deputy Prosecutor Brandon Segal said he will understand what officers are doing when they examine yaw marks or skid marks at a collision scene.

He said understanding the math and science behind the investigations will improve his presentation of cases to a grand jury or in trial.

“If I have the ability to explain it to a juror in layman’s terms, trial presentation improves, cases have better outcomes,” said Segal, who supervises the prosecutor’s Vehicular Homicide and Traffic Safety Unit. “The goal is to have more prosecutors trained on crash reconstruction.”

He said trained prosecutors could better collaborate with police traffic investigators “to make sure all the t’s are crossed and i’s dotted.”

“It’s fascinating stuff, seeing how a skid can be turned into a speed,” he said. “You learn it on the job, but I never had an opportunity to sit down and go through an intensive class like this.”

By also having patrol officers in the class, there could be better prosecution in minor collisions when speeding or reckless driving might be involved, Segal said. “Now we have more officers who are able to document the evidence that the prosecutors need to prosecute the charges,” he said.

Hankins said Segal is the first prosecutor to go through the training, which will conclude with a 40-hour traffic reconstruction course in September.

The traffic section will be stronger with more of its officers trained in crash investigation, along with some patrol officers, Hankins said.

“It doesn’t matter if a driver’s injured or impaired or doesn’t remember,” he said. “These guys are CSI investigators that come in and get all the evidence from the roadway and put all the pieces together.”

“You don’t need a confession in a traffic investigation. The evidence will give you everything you need.

“If your family is, unfortunately, involved in one of these investigations, it means the world to them to make sure they have the best training and the best officers working on their case. And they do.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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