JPD to get new forensics gadgets

Assembly approves $50,000 in grants; city spending for 'black box' reader for cars, substance scanner

Posted: Friday, November 06, 2009

The Juneau Police Department will be getting some new investigative gadgets in the near future, including a device that allows investigators to retrieve pre-crash data from some vehicles in accidents.

A city attorney said Monday that Juneau's police department may be the first in the state to have the crash retrieval system, for which the Juneau Assembly approved drawing down nearly $10,000 in state grant money and a city match of about $5,500 on Monday.

The system can access information from certain models of vehicles equipped with "event data recorders."

"They often times are compared to the black boxes that we hear about all the time on airplanes," Lt. Troy Wilson said. "They're gathering some of that data."

The information can be critical to an investigation, particularly if the accident is fatal, and tell investigators things like how fast a vehicle was traveling and when or if brakes were applied, he said.

"It's giving some information on what that vehicle was doing moments before the crash took place," he said.

Assembly member Randy Wanamaker brought up some concerns about the system related to privacy rights, particularly if the information could be retrieved from a vehicle without the owner's consent.

"The authority to retrieve that data in most cases is probably going to come like we would get information if we wanted something out of your house, we're going to have to apply for search warrants and go through a process to get the OK to go do that stuff," Wilson said.

The device will not be compatible with all vehicles, only certain models manufactured after a certain time. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler install EDRs, as do some foreign carmakers. It is expected that 85 percent of all new vehicles manufactured will have the recorders installed by 2010, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.

"The original intent for those devices was for the engineers that are designing vehicles and stuff be able to gather crash data so they could make cars safer, better, all those sorts of things," Wilson said. "That same information is critical possibly in an investigation, looking at if it was criminal in nature."

The Assembly also approved a grant for nearly $36,000 in federal stimulus money to purchase a handheld device that can identify explosives, drugs and unknown substances in the field.

"We could take a sample and run it through this instrument in a testing process and it would be able to give us some indication of what the compounds were, what the ingredients were of a substance, whether it was a drug like cocaine or whether it was some sort of explosive compound or chemical," Wilson said.

The department is looking at several different vendors and will begin a bidding process in the near future, Wilson said. He expects investigators will be able to begin using the device in the field by next summer.

The devices are about the size of an old video camera and are generally designed with large buttons so that it can be used with hazardous material suits, Wilson said.

"Possibly we could use it for a meth lab and determining some of the chemicals or things that were involved in that type of a situation, or any type of hazmat situation," he said.

The device would have been helpful in the anthrax scares in Juneau last year and several years before, when suspicious powdered substances were found at different locations, Wilson said.

"It would be able to help us determine some of those things more quickly so that we can make decisions on how we would need to respond to the situation," he said.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or

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