Ithaca, N.Y. — Officer Dana Haff can sometimes tell that a crash is going to be bad just by the sound of the 911 dispatcher’s voice.
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“Christy’s dispatching it — this doesn’t sound good … that’s not the way she sounds,” Haff says, imitating an emergency call. “We better help them out.”
That sort of intuitive reaction leads police to know to quickly call for help and backup. And it’s just one of the many ways Haff and Officer Derek Barr, who both spoke at length Wednesday night during a session of the Ithaca Police Department’s Citizens’ Police Academy, use their experience to improve IPD’s response to and investigation of car accidents.
Haff and Barr both said they have years of experience investigating all sorts of crashes in all different parts of the city — on Route 13, in downtown Ithaca, on East Hill. (The Citizens’ Police Academy is being held to educate the public on the inner-workings of the police department, according to Chief John Barber.)
The officers showed a series slides on the screen with badly mangled cars and buses on top of staircases in the snow.
“This happens, right here in Ithaca,” Barr said. (Police later added that there’s about one fatal crash a year in Ithaca.)
One of the slides showed a badly damaged windshield. The driver of it had a .26 percent Blood Alcohol Content when he hit a pedestrian who was walking across the street, the officers said. The driver tried leaving the scene of the Collegetown crash, the police said, before hiding his car on Seneca Street.
“Of course, this guy flees while he’s looking out that,” Barr said, pointing at the tattered windshield. “We solve it pretty quick.”
The officers took the class on a step-by-step demonstration of how they are trained to arrive at crash scenes and how they investigate them. In a separate part of Wednesday’s class, they also spoke at length about the proper way to conduct a traffic stop.
Both officers stressed that investigators are supposed to gather facts rather than making assumptions about how a crash occurred.
“We try not to form opinions. Evidence, facts — we base our analysis on factual information. If the facts aren’t there, they’re not there,” Haff said. “If the facts and evidence are there that can give us a conclusion — that’s great.”
Not everybody does that. Officer Barr in particular criticized the Ithaca Voice and The Ithaca Journal for their coverage of the driver in the Simeon’s crash that killed Amanda Bush, 27. The media “wanted to beat him like a pinata with sticks,” Barr said of Viacheslav Grychanyi, the truck driver.
Barr, however, pointed to the need for a bigger-picture fix for truck safety in Ithaca.
“Simeon’s was the last big one we did,” he said. “…Until the city mitigates that problem on the east end of the Commons, we’re going to have another one.”
Here are 8 of our other takeaways from the session:
1 — Don’t pull over for patrol car until the officer signals
Officer Haff said motorists should know not to pull over unless the officer signals them to do so.
“They’re going to stop you where it’s safe for you and safe for them,” he said. “Do not stop until the officer initiates the stop.”
2 — What are the 3 categories of accidents?
The officers detailed three principal categories of vehicle accidents:
1) Property damage accidents, where there’s no damage to people;
2) A “personal injury accident,” which ranges from a headache to leg numbness;
3) A “serious personal injury and/or fatal” crash.
3 — You probably don’t want to stop a driver in front of a Collegetown bar
Officer Barr was on Court TV once, and the cameramen pushed him to accept doing traffic stops in Ithaca’s Collegetown.
Barr wasn’t thrilled about the idea and says his reservations were validated when they pulled someone over in front of Dunbar’s, a bar in Collegetown.
“I have 50 people there in a matter of seconds,” Barr says. “I say to the camera guy: Get in the car, we’re out of there.”
4 — ‘Crazy stuff will happen out there’
Part of the difficulty in conducting traffic stops is the sheer unpredictability of what will happen, according to the officers.
“I’ve gotten drugs off of traffic stops. I’ve gotten guns,” Haff said. “They’re there. People are driving around with guns in their cars that they don’t have pistol permits for.”
That’s true even in Ithaca. “Crazy stuff will happen out there,” Haff said, citing instances in which multiple people running out of cars at once.
“When you stop a group of people who are of the criminal element they’ll try to distract you … they’ll start making a lot of noise; they’ll be loud and make a big scene, thinking that will help them elude arrest,” he said.
5 — How to approach the scene of a crash
Officer Barr stressed the importance for police officers to park their patrol cars in a safe location when arriving at the scene of an accident.
“This is such a big deal, I can’t even tell you,” Barr said.
Barr added that poor approaches from police can prevent paramedics from arriving at the scene safely.
If officers park in the wrong spot, “We just clogged ambulance, we clogged fire, just because you wanted to get so close to the scene,” he said.
“You could be inhibiting paramedics to get to that person because you were speeding a little bit — it happens all the time. You have to think where you’re going to park your car.”
6 — ‘Clear and concise communication’
Both officers also noted that it’s key, especially when conducting a traffic stop, to issue “clear and concise” communication that people in the area can hear.
“This is not a job you can’t communicate in,” Haff says.
7 — No quotas
There are no traffic stop quotes for Ithaca police, Officer Haff said in response to a question.
8 — Why bystanders should do in the event of an accident
Officer Haff noted that though it’s good for bystanders to try to help, it’s important that they not try to do too much; in particular, he said, they should not try to move people who have been in car accidents unless trained as paramedics or if the victim is about to get run over.
“Maybe cover them with a jacket … but try not to move people unless you’re trained to do so, because you could really make things worse for them,” he said.