Cullman’s crash rate has presented a growing number of concerns over the years, largely due to the growth. Typically, when there are more people on the road and more distracted drivers, the crash ratio will increase. But, let’s be clear, 100% of crashes can be prevented. Please feel free to read that sentence again. 

Cullman Daily’s Jamie Speakman sit down with Captain Jeff Warnke from the Cullman Police Department in an in-depth question/answer session to better help citizens and victims understand the process of a serious traffic crash. 

Question 1: What is the Traffic Homicide Investigation (THI) Unit, and why was it created?

The Traffic Homicide Investigation Unit is a group of dedicated officers who have attended multiple schools, training, and certifications to qualify themselves in investigating, collecting, and analyzing physical evidence and testifying in court regarding those facts. Cullman Police Department has had single officers certified as Traffic Homicide Investigators for 30 plus years but only within the last five years have we been able to put together a team of officers with various skill levels to better serve the needs of the community and the citizens and give a voice to the loved ones killed in the horrific crashes occurring in our jurisdiction.

Question 2: How many officers/investigators make up the THI Unit?

As of this date, we have a four-person team composing the Traffic Homicide Unit. I, Captain Jeff Warnke, head up the Traffic Homicide Unit, along with Sgt. Joey Duncan, Officer Jonathan England, and Officer Hunter Potts. Officer Potts is Level One certified; I am Level Two certified, and both Sgt. Duncan and Officer England are Level Three Reconstructionist certified with the ability to reconstruct a crash scene based merely on the physical evidence collected and photographed at the scene, along with crush evidence gathered from the vehicles.

Question 3: What types of investigations does the THI Unit handle?

The Traffic Homicide Unit investigates all motor vehicle crashes where there is an immediate death involved or serious physical injuries that may cause death to the victim. The Traffic Homicide Unit also investigates crashes involving Cullman Police Department vehicles unless it appears that investigation by ALEA is required.

Question 4: In dealing with fatalities, what are the typical investigation steps from the crash scene until the case is handed over to the District Attorney’s Office?

In dealing with fatality crashes, the typical steps are the initial investigation where the Traffic Homicide Unit arrives on the scene and begins photographing the scene, the vehicles, and any evidence such as tire marks, scuffs, gouges in the roadway indicating an approximate point of impact and such, that has the chance to be disturbed, moved, or lost due to time. One member of our unit will begin interviewing witnesses at the scene and getting written statements. If the at-fault driver has survived, we will go through the search warrant process and the court system to obtain blood samples from that person to determine if impairment is the cause of the crash. Those samples will be transported to the Birmingham office of the Department of Forensic Sciences, where they will be submitted to be analyzed. Once we feel we have obtained all the possible photographs and evidence left at the scene, we will paint the scene showing the positioning of the vehicles to include the tire positions, front, and rear of vehicles, vehicle numbers, approximate point of impact, gouge marks, tire marks, tire scuffs, braking, and any evidence we feel necessary to our investigation. Once that is completed, we will open the roadway back up to travel. All vehicles involved in crashes involving death and or serious physical injury are impounded in a secure building out of the elements so we can-do in-depth investigations of everything from the tire tread depth, tire brand, model and specifications, headlight, and taillight bulb examinations, vehicle axle positions. We will fly our drone and aerial map the crash scene. We will also use our drone to map the vehicle and its damage once they are back at the impound position. Another aspect of our investigations involves the Air Bag Control Module located in most vehicles traveling the roadways today. Our Traffic Homicide Unit has trained officers and the equipment and cables to download the information after obtaining search warrants on the vehicles from the court systems. We will locate and remove those Air Bag Control Modules and download the data, telling us the vehicle’s speed, braking, seatbelt use, and other information pertinent to our investigation. Our officers also attend the autopsies conducted by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, where the State Medical examiner will examine the deceased’s body to determine the cause and manner of death. The primary investigating officer will then begin the long and arduous task of a paperwork packet of approximately 170 pages in which we will include all information related to the case and which the District Attorney’s office requires. Officers often must wait for months for the results from the blood samples sent to the Department of Forensic Sciences and for the autopsy results due to the backlog and the overwhelming number of cases sent to the department, thus delaying the completion of the case file. Once the mountain of paperwork is completed, the officer can present the case file to the District Attorney’s office, where the decision to turn the case over to the Grand Jury for examination is made, or the case sent directly for trial. If the case is placed on the Grand Jury docket, the officer will be required to answer a Grand Jury Subpoena and appear before the Grand Jury and testify to the facts of the case. The Grand Jury then decides whether to issue an indictment or no-bill the presented charges. If a Grand Jury indictment is issued, then and only then can officers place that subject under arrest for those charges. Following that arrest, a trial will be scheduled, and subpoenas will be issued for the jury trial where a jury of 12 will determine innocence or guilt of the parties involved based on the evidence and testimony of the officers and witness presented at trial.

Question 5: What is the typical timeline (how many months) on a THI investigation for the City? And how does that time compare to that of other THI Units such as ALEA and municipalities?

The timeline on a typical THI investigation can vary, depending on how backlogged the Department of Forensic Sciences intake is and how many cases have been submitted prior to our submissions. People of today live in a microwave world where they want everything fast and now. Many people watch the crime television shows such as NCIS, and others show like it and expect every crime to be committed, evidence gathered, processed, and a suspect arrested in one hour or less. They don’t consider the time compression of those programs. A one-year timeline from the time of the crash to the Grand Jury indictment is reasonable. That may not seem reasonable to the victim’s family, and they may feel like we are dragging our feet. Still, we have to work within the confines of the criminal justice system and the assisting agencies processing evidence to ensure that we present the best case to the District Attorney’s office for possible prosecution. The wheels of justice turn slowly and are based on funding by the State and manpower on hand to process the evidence other agencies, and we submit. Cullman Police Departments THI cases are no different from ALEA or other agencies. All go through the same lengthy process from initial call to submission to the DA’s office.

Question 6: What are issues that can cause delays in the investigation? (Issues with DFS in the delay of toxicology analysis, etc.)

As I’ve noted previously, the extreme backlog of cases being presented to the Department of Forensic Sciences is the major cause of delay in cases along with the schedules of other investigators from other agencies that we may have to call on from time to time for their expertise to assist us in our investigations. They may have cases they are already working on, and we are not their priority.

Question 7: What is the number one cause of non-fatal traffic crashes in the City of Cullman?

The number one cause of non-fatal crashes for the City of Cullman is “following too close,” where the person behind is not allowing the suggested two-car length per 10 mph gap between their vehicle and the one in front. Then when the car in front suddenly stops, their perception-reaction time does not allow them time to stop before encountering the car’s rear bumper in front.

Question 8: Most common cause of fatal traffic crashes?

The most common cause of fatal crashes is “failure to yield right of way.” When speaking of “failure to yield right of way,” I am talking about exiting from a private driveway onto a public roadway, failing to stop for a red light or a posted stop sign, pulling into the path of another vehicle, or striking another vehicle.

Question 9: What are some examples of the THI Unit’s unique technology access and uses for investigations?

The DJI Mavic Drone used for aerial mapping of the crash scenes is the unique technology that the Cullman Police Department Traffic Homicide Unit has available to investigate crashes. This drone allows us to map the crash scene without closing the roadway and detouring and or impeding traffic. This is the same drone that the Ukraine Army is currently using for aerial surveillance of the Russian Army’s invasion of their country. The Cullman THI unit is also fortunate to have a Bosch Crash Data Retrieval system that allows officers to download the data from the “Crash Data Recorders” located in most vehicles on the roadways today. All this technology is the result of the City of Cullman’s Mayor and City Council’s generosity and realizing the need and funding the efforts for THI Unit to obtain the equipment to serve the citizens of Cullman better and those who may become victims.

Traffic crashes happen too often. But, again, all crashes are preventable. It takes manpower to investigate the crashes. Although it may seem a lifetime before justice is served for the victim’s family, it takes time for the criminal justice system to work properly. Every detail that goes into the investigation is a vital part of the process. If one minor detail is left out or overlooked, it could mean a criminal walking free versus a criminal behind bars.