'The biggest challenge ... is to relay bad news': How the Traffic Police investigates fatal accidents
SINGAPORE: Traffic Police (TP) investigation officer Saleha Mohd Sani, 37, clearly remembers her first case after joining the Fatal Accident Investigation Team (FAIT) two years ago.
“It was the fear of attending to my first case,” Station Inspector (SI) Saleha told reporters on Monday (Mar 29) at the TP headquarters in Ubi.
This was not the usual new job jitters – SI Saleha has been with the TP for 15 years – but anxiety about an extremely heavy responsibility.
“The biggest challenge for me, of course, is to relay bad news to the next-of-kin,” she added.
While SI Saleha previously did general investigations, FAIT investigation officers are specifically trained to handle fatal accidents and are experienced enough to specialise in them. When a person injured in a serious accident later dies, these officers will take over the case.
FAIT investigation officers gather on-scene evidence like dashboard camera footage, tyre skid marks and vehicle damage, with the main aim of reconstructing the accident and establishing the facts of the case.
They get help from crime scene specialists, who take photos of the scene and use 3D scanners to create accurate and detailed models of it. These specialists also collect forensic evidence like DNA, fingerprints and paint scratches arising from the crash.
These details can help bring justice for the deceased and closure for their loved ones.
BREAKING THE BAD NEWS
SI Saleha said her first case involved a bus that ran over a motorcyclist who tried overtaking from the left.
“(The body) was beyond recognition, and we had to relay the news to the family member and prepare them for the condition of the body,” she said.
At the scene, SI Saleha found the victim’s phone and called his wife, who was surprised to hear another woman on the line. It later emerged that the victim was on his way home from work. SI Saleha told the woman that her husband had got into an accident, and to quickly head down.
“We informed her about how the accident happened, and of course we had to tell her that the condition was quite bad,” SI Saleha said, adding that she advised the woman to bring along another family member.
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At this point, many would start to question if their loved ones had died, but SI Saleha said officers try to offer as few details as possible and not reveal this over the phone.
“We do it face to face because we don’t want them to get emotional, and then they get themselves (in danger) by rushing to the scene,” she explained.
SI Saleha said officers are trained to relay the heartbreaking news, although she highlighted that this was “not an easy task to do” as officers too can get emotional.
“You need to have the composure and be professional in your dealings with them,” she said, adding that some next-of-kin will refuse to believe the horrific news. “But once the reality sets in, they will eventually start to accept the news.”
When SI Saleha finally told the woman about her husband, she said the woman blanked out and did not know what to do.
“Maybe they had just seen the person a few hours ago, so they don’t believe that it really happened to their loved ones,” she said, noting that next-of-kin are given the choice of seeing the body or not.
“It’s normal that they are a bit helpless, so we have to constantly remind them and assure them that we are doing our best to bring justice to the deceased.”
At fatal accident scenes, police officers would have already been deployed to help manage distraught next-of-kin who might want to hold or hug the deceased for the last time.
“We have to tell them that we need to do our job and hopefully bring closure to the case,” SI Saleha added. “We will give them some time to be with the deceased, but of course not to touch any of the evidence at the scene.”
WHAT DO OFFICERS LOOK OUT FOR?
This evidence includes the position of the deceased, and more general observations like weather and road conditions as well as the first point of impact.
The investigation officer will be briefed by a colleague who was the first to arrive on scene. This includes getting information on the parties involved, the location of the deceased and whether there were witnesses or footage of the accident.
READ: Fewer accidents on Singapore roads last year; disproportionate number involve motorcyclists, elderly
The officer will record the statements of the parties involved, before conducting fuller interviews back at the station at a later stage.
Some witnesses could wait for the investigation officer to arrive, while others who need to go might leave behind the memory stick from their dashboard camera and get in touch later.
In the absence of dashcam clips, footage from Land Transport Authority cameras in the vicinity could help illustrate events leading up to the accident, SI Saleha said.
A fatal accident sign with a police hotline will be placed at the scene in case other witnesses want to share information.
All this has to be done under considerable time pressure. SI Saleha pointed out the need to clear the scene “as soon as possible”, especially during conditions like bad weather and heavy traffic.
“We don't want to delay the commuters, and so that is the challenge,” she said. “We need to clear the scene fast, gather evidence and of course find as much evidence as we can at the scene.”
RECREATING THE ACCIDENT
This is when a virtual 3D model of the scene comes in handy, allowing investigators to revisit the site multiple times without disrupting traffic flow.
The model also acts as a permanent record of the physical evidence on site, reducing the possibility of missing out on some evidence in a messy scene, for instance.
Depending on the scale of the accident, this model can be created in minutes by a single crime scene specialist using a tripod mounted terrestrial 3D scanner. Multiple scanners can be used to produce different perspectives of the scene.
The spinning scanner, which works both day and night, projects a laser beam on the surface of objects at the scene to accurately measure distances and spatial positioning, factors that are crucial in reconstructing the accident.
“3D scan data can also help FAIT investigation officers refresh the memory of witnesses and the accused during their interview,” said senior crime scene specialist Madeleine Bong, 29.
Ms Bong, who has been with the TP since 2019, showed a virtual model of an actual accident involving a truck that had run over and killed a motorcyclist.
The partially coloured 3D model was so detailed that it captured the motorcyclist’s food delivery bag and blood on the road. Using interactive 3D software, investigators can simply drag a line across the model to determine distance.
A lighter and more portable 3D scanner can be used in tighter spaces such as vehicle interiors, when more details of a specific area of interest are required.
GETTING FINGERPRINTS FROM BODIES
“Some cases sound very simple, but it can be very complicated when there's limited physical evidence at the scene,” Ms Bong said, noting that this could be the case in a fatal accident when the body’s condition makes it unidentifiable.
“We will try our best to find any physical or forensic evidence that can help to identify the person.”
Ms Bong said she has obtained fingerprints from victims of fatal accidents, and did not bat an eyelid when asked how that made her feel.
“I think it’s normal,” she said with a laugh. “Before I attend a scene, I will actually prepare myself for the most gruesome sight. So when I go to the scene, I can remain calm and composed.”
Ms Bong said she feels fulfilled when the evidence she collected sheds more light on a case.
“I feel that the victim or the deceased could not speak for themselves at that moment of time,” she added. “So, I’m the only who can give this information to the investigation officer for them to solve the case.”
WORKING WITH DEATH
Besides using the 3D models, investigation officers could also engage the Health Sciences Authority to calculate a vehicle’s speed before it crashed. These details will “definitely help” in any potential prosecution in court, SI Saleha said.
Despite that, there have been fatal accidents with a lack of physical evidence showing how they happened, such as those that happen in secluded areas with no cameras or passing vehicles, SI Saleha said.
In one such accident involving a vehicle crashing into a centre divider and finally hitting a tree, SI Saleha concluded that it was a case of self-skidding based on marks on the road.
“If we don’t have enough evidence, then of course we can’t prosecute anyone,” she stated. “If there are no cameras to prove the party at fault, we will have to take no further action pending further developments.”
On a more human side, SI Saleha acknowledged that it has sometimes been difficult dealing with the morbid nature of her job.
“At times I get carried away and have difficulty sleeping, but over time it made me realise the importance of family ties as well as to appreciate your loved ones,” she said.
When things get too “taxing”, SI Saleha said she takes a hot shower after getting home to “dislodge” herself from the case and not think about it.
“That's usually how I distract myself,” she said. “Because if you get too emotional, at times it can also affect your mental health.”
Ultimately, SI Saleha said the greatest satisfaction in her job is when she brings closure to victim’s family members and successfully prosecutes any alleged perpetrators.
“We want to bring justice to the deceased,” she added.