Accident investigation team provides strength in numbers

Lt. Colin McAllister of the Naugatuck Police Department, left, and Cheshire Officer Kevin Zaksewicz, right, both members of the Naugatuck Valley Collision Investigation Team, show off a new laser mapping instrument June 19 at the Naugatuck Police Department. The team, consisting of officers from Naugatuck, Cheshire, Middlebury, Plymouth, Watertown and Wolcott, was formed in 2008. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — Ten years ago, a fatal crash in a small town could overwhelm its police department, pulling officers off the road and delaying other investigations.

Now when that happens, police turn to their counterparts in the Naugatuck Valley Collision Investigation Team.

The team formed on Jan. 1, 2008 as a result of a Wolcott crash that killed three teenagers on East Street in October 2007. The investigation stretched the town’s resources, requiring hours of overtime and the assistance of accident reconstructionists from Southington.

Since then, Wolcott joined Naugatuck, Watertown and Middlebury in forming the Naugatuck Valley Collision Investigation Team. Cheshire and Plymouth recently became members of the group.

The six towns share resources, including officers with specialized training and advanced equipment. Six to 12 officers respond once the reconstruction team is activated. Many of them are high-ranking officers with decades of experience.

When it began 10 years ago, the team used an old ambulance donated from Middlebury to transport equipment and act as a field office. Now it has a fully equipped mobile command unit.

The mobile command unit isn’t the only upgrade the team has made over the last 10 years.

In April, the team added laser mapping instruments made by Laser Technology Inc. to its arsenal.

“As recently as 15 years ago, we were literally doing a lot of what this does with tape measures,” said Naugatuck police Lt. Bryan Cammarata, who is the team’s commander, as members of the team showed off the new equipment at the Naugatuck Police Department last week.

The laser equipment, which includes a laser, tablet, prism pole and software, is used to map out an accident scene. The prism pole is positioned at a data point, such as the start of a skid mark, and the laser is used to record the distance, and the point is instantly mapped on the tablet.

Using information gathered at the scene, officers calculate the factors involved in a crash, like the speed a car was traveling. The software also allows the team to create 3D maps to scale of the scene and what occurred, which can be reconstructed at any time.

The Cheshire Police Department purchased two laser mapping units, one unit is kept on the team’s mobile command unit and the other in Cheshire.

Cheshire police Lt. Fred Jortner said the units cost about $20,000, which includes the software and training. The Cheshire Police Department offered to purchase the equipment since other member towns already contributed financially in other ways, he said.

The laser mapping equipment has been available for a few years but is light years ahead of the equipment previously used by the team. The old unit was 10 or so years old and dated back to when the team was formed. The old “clunky” unit was designed more for construction surveying than police investigations, officers said. The unit was susceptible to the elements, used outdated technology, and required more upkeep and maintenance, officers said.

A serious crash scene can have as many as 200 data points, Naugatuck police Lt. Colin McAllister said. The laser equipment allows officers to process a scene quicker and more efficiently. A scene that used to take two to three hours to process now takes an hour, he said.

“We’re still getting not only the same amount of data from a crime scene or crash scene, but we’re also getting a lot more and we’re doing it faster,” McAllister said.

McAllister said the upgrade in technology also helps when cases go to court. It provides all the tools necessary to reconstruct the scene in the court room and gives the jury an better and accurate representation of what happened during an accident.

“Our reports are obviously just one dimensional, they’re words, but seeing a picture and trying to describe what happened is really what ultimately secures convictions for offenders,” McAllister said.

Senior Assistant State’s Attorney John Davenport said advances in technology are “absolutely invaluable” when it comes to prosecuting accident cases. Equipment, such as the laser mapping instruments, schematically lays out all of the points of an accident and provides scientific calculations that allow for information to easily be presented in court.

“It enables us, as prosecutors, to make better informed arguments,” he said. “It allows us to minimize doubt.”