Police STAR team takes lead at crash sites

Photo By Rick Harris
EPD Sergeant and S.T.A.R. team member, Jack Ramsey, is often called upon to take detailed photographs of evidence as an integral part of reconstructing an accident.

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  While traffic fatalities occurring in the city of Elizabethton are few, the city's police department utilizes a team of special investigators to cut through the twisted metal and find the reason behind the crash.
  The Elizabethton Police Department's Strategic Traffic Accident Reconstruction (STAR) team pieces together evidence of traffic accidents where serious injuries or fatalities are involved.
  Police Capt. Rusty Verran leads the STAR team as its top officer. He was one of the city's first officers to receive extensive traffic accident investigation and reconstruction training. Verran said police officer candidates receive one day of training in traffic accident investigation during their police academy training, but did not get specialized training necessary to investigate traffic accidents involving fatalities.
  "When we got a bad accident we'd have to ask the Johnson City Police Department to come help us," Verran says. "We had nobody trained at that time."
  Police Chief Roger Deal says he sought to get city officers trained to conduct their own investigations. As road systems grow and drivers seemingly move quicker in and out of traffic, the police officer's role in investigating accidents has increased considerably.
  "In today's line of work it is a necessity," said Deal who added the STAR team had been very successful as an investigatory tool in criminal cases. "When I first started out, an accident report was two pages with a front and back on one sheet of paper; today it is six pages long."
  The STAR team was formed in the mid-1990s. Verran completed 80-hour courses in basic traffic homicide investigation training and advance accident investigation through the Johnson City Bureau of Police in 1994. He later completed a traffic accident reconstruction course taught at the Institute of Police Technology and Management in Jacksonville, Fla.
  Today, Verran works along side fellow STAR team members Sgt. Jack Ramsey, Greg Workman, and Michael Merritt who are trained as traffic accident reconstruction specialists and fellow traffic investigators Mike Sproviero and Carl Burrough.
  Ramsey investigated a January 2003 motor vehicle accident involving Melissa White who was found guilty of vehicular homicide by intoxication by a Carter County jury on Oct. 29. White was convicted after crashing the vehicle she was driving into a utility pole on Siam Road which resulted in the death of her mother, Dora Chandley.
   As the lead reconstruction officer, Ramsey evaluated the crash scene using reconstruction techniques, collected physical evidence, interviewed witnesses, and received results of a blood sample taken from White to detect any presence of intoxicants. The investigation recreated what had happened, how Chandley died, and precipitated the criminal charge against White.
  "Under the law, her behavior constituted a criminal offense," Ramsey says, "and we had to prove that."
  Ramsey, who holds a degree in computer science from East Tennessee State University, created a computer simulation of the accident demonstrating the events prior to, during and after the fatal crash that was presented to the jury as part of the state's case.
  "This is the first case we've used multimedia as part of the prosecution," says Ramsey.
  A reconstruction involves investigatory skills such as finding skid marks, tire marks, items thrown from vehicles and a vehicle's activity following an impact. The investigation includes a significant amount of mathematics and physics learned by traffic reconstructionists during their long education period.
  "You need a strong background in both just to pass the courses," Verran says.
   Among its investigatory tools, the team uses a "drag sled" to determine distance of a vehicle's behavior during a traffic accident. The sled creates a co-efficient of the vehicle's friction on the roadway that tells police how speed and movement of the vehicle possibly affected the crash.
  "We have been fortunate not to have a lot of bad accidents in this town," Verran said. "We don't have a lot of high speed roadways here either."
  Verran adds that excess speed - even a little over a posted limit - can be fatal in an automobile crash.
   "It doesn't take a lot of speed to kill you," he says. "It depends on how they hit."
  Verran also said the team's function includes giving citizens involved in accidents an assessment of what happened and who was at fault if civil litigation arises involving the parties in a traffic accident.
  The team used its skills to evaluate how effectively a speed limit posting worked on a portion of Southside Road where motorists were blind to an intersection due to steep grade on the road. The team calculated the distance, reaction, and stopping time of vehicles near a cemetery on the road where the speed limit was 35 miles per hour.
  The analysis revealed a motorist traveling over the hill and blind to the intersection could not recognize another vehicle and stop in time if he or she were traveling at 35 miles per hour. Thus, the speed limit on that section of Southside Road was reduced to 25 miles per hour.
  "We are not just writing citations," says Ramsey. "We are trying to make recommendations to enhance safety on public roads."