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Grand Forks Police using technology to study accident scenes

While emergency responders worked at the scene of a deadly crash on Grand Forks' South Columbia Road about a week ago, a small unmanned aircraft quietly floated overhead.

A Grand Forks police officer waits for a UAS to land after the aircraft hovered above a two vehicle accident
A Grand Forks police officer waits for a UAS to land after the aircraft hovered above a two vehicle accident on Columbia Road near Altru Hospital late Friday afternoon. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

While emergency responders worked at the scene of a deadly crash on Grand Forks’ South Columbia Road about a week ago, a small unmanned aircraft quietly floated overhead.

It was taking photos to help investigators reconstruct the events that led up to the accident, according to Lt. Dwight Love of the Grand Forks Police Department. They would otherwise have to bring in a crane or a helicopter to get such photos.

Police had closed the busy, four-lane road and rerouted traffic for hours to conduct their investigation. Love said getting a crane or helicopter would have taken hours longer.

While a fairly small law-enforcement agency by national standards, the Grand Forks Police Department has been able to get access to many high-tech investigative tools, the latest being the unmanned aircraft that it rents at minimal cost as part of a UND research project.

Generally, police departments rarely have the most updated technology because they’re “always fighting the budget issue” with tax dollars, said Grand Forks police Detective Wayne Schull, whose team investigates traffic accidents.


But Love said he thinks his department is in the right place with new technology; it’s not using anything experimental, but it still has some updated tools.

“We’re not so far behind that we don’t have the technology, but we don’t have the cutting edge stuff either,” he said. “I think we’re right where we should be.”

Laser scanner

While the general public does not usually view traffic accidents as seriously as crimes, Schull says the two shouldn’t be treated differently.

“A lot of people tend to think of a crash scene as just a crash scene,” he said. But if someone dies in a crash, he said, “You still have the death of a human being.... It needs to be treated with the same level of care” as a fatal crime.

That’s why even traffic accidents get a bit of the CSI treatment.

About five years ago, the police department acquired a kind of laser-scanning device called a “total station” to help Schull and his team reconstruct traffic accidents.

In a reconstruction, investigators start from where the damaged vehicles lay at the scene and use measurements and physical evidence to derive information such as how fast the vehicles were going, the direction they were heading and how they collided.


The total station uses a laser, reflector and data collector to produce these measurements, Schull said.

“Basically what it amounts to is it’s a really fancy ruler and protractor,” he said. But it saves “countless hours” for officers and helps reduce the need for closing roads because of accident investigations, he said.

And, he said, “it increases the accuracy and precision of what we do as investigators.”

The total station is only used on about five to 10 full accident reconstructions each year, Schull said. “The amount of time that goes into a full reconstruction, it’s just not necessary for every crash.”

A total station would be used in accidents where someone dies or suffers very severe injuries, he said. It’s also used to survey crime scenes, he said.

It was used in the Columbia Road accident in which a Fargo man died of injuries after a pickup hit his car on the driver’s side.

Flying cameras

Within the last year, the police department added unmanned aircraft systems, known as UAS or drones, to its investigative tool chest.


The drones are leased by the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department from UND for $1 a year as part of a university research project. The sheriff’s UAS team will make them available to law enforcement agencies in 16 counties in northeast North Dakota, including the Grand Forks Police Department.

Lt. B.J. Maxon of the sheriff’s department said the drones are typically used at accident scenes, during searches for missing persons or fleeing suspects, and in natural disasters.

So far, drones have been used by local law enforcement nine times, three of them with Grand Forks police, said Al Frazier, a sheriff’s deputy and UND aerospace professor.

Before the Columbia Road accident, police used drones to reconstruct the August collision of a BNSF train and a city mosquito-spraying vehicle, he said.

The drones used here are small - the largest is 4 feet across - and they’re “rudimentary,” Schull said. “They’re not very far above what you can grab off the shelf at Walmart, but they’ve got some pretty good cameras on them, so they meet our needs.”

Nationally, there are only 10 law-enforcement agencies using small drones, Frazier said, but, as the technology develops, he expects more agencies will start to use it.

Schull foresees drones becoming more prevalent locally in the future, he said, but progress may be slow because of federal regulations and public perception of the technology.

“There’s a concern over the privacy. I don’t know if (drones are) not accepted or if it’s just an unknown,” Maxon said.


Frazier said the concern about privacy may have been perpetuated by media. There are federal laws, plus a committee including representatives from UND, local government and law enforcement to make sure drone usage is regulated, he said.

Black-box readers

Grand Forks police are looking to acquire still more high-tech investigative tools.

One tool on their wish list is software for extracting information from event data recorders, which are black boxes mounted in many new motor vehicles.

With that software and a search warrant, police will be able to access information such as how fast a car was going and if the driver was wearing a seatbelt, Schull said.

The department currently uses the North Dakota Highway Patrol’s software, but it will probably get its own in the next three or four years, depending on its budget, Love said.

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