Although the revised pursuit policy has been presented by Police as a mere tweak – based on recommendations from the 2019 joint Police/IPCA review – it essentially puts the brakes on police pursuits of fleeing drivers unless there is an overwhelming risk of harm.
This requires a change in attitude among many frontline staff for whom the idea of “letting them get away” is challenging.
Feedback from members in the letters section of Police News reflects common concerns:
- The public still expects police to chase the bad guys.
- Punishments for failing to stop should be strengthened instead.
- It gives free rein to crims.
- Management doesn’t trust staff with decisions about pursuits.
- Existing tactics have been working; pursuits and crashes are down.
- Other alternative tactics should be considered.
Publicly, Police has taken a relatively low-key approach to the introduction of what could be a game-changer for operational policing in New Zealand.
There was no media launch (because there was no “new” policy); the stated purpose was simply to ensure that an existing policy was applied consistently.
Behind the scenes, however, Police has been implementing a robust district-wide information campaign to encourage engagement and discussion to get the frontline on board with the revised policy and how it will work operationally.
Fleeing Driver Programme manager Acting Inspector Kelly Larsen says that while the principles in the revised policy are not significantly different to the last revision in 2016, Police know that this one requires a culture and mindset change to align operational practice with policy.
“The policy is not new, it’s simply been revised and properly implemented,” she says. “The difference is we are expecting our people to actively comply with it, and holding them to account when they don’t – through debriefs and ‘lessons learned’ conversations.”
One of the key policy points now reads: “A pursuit is only justified when the threat posed by the vehicle occupant(s) prior to the pursuit commencing, and the necessity to immediately apprehend the driver and/or passenger(s), outweighs the risk of harm created by the pursuit.”
Kelly says: “As police officers, at some fundamental level, we joined to ‘catch the bad guy’. It goes against every fibre of our being to ‘let them get away’.”
Which is why, she says, “we need to make sure they don’t”, and why there is now a greater emphasis on subsequent investigations.
“It was obvious that what we were doing previously wasn’t working; the human cost was too high.”
In 2018, there were 12 deaths and 39 serious injuries. In 2019, there were eight deaths and 53 serious injuries. In 2020, there were three deaths and 37 serious injuries.
This month, Police is running a district champions workshop at the Police College to further embed the changes around the response to the fleeing drivers. Kelly says face-to-face training will be delivered to district leaders from sergeants up. This is coupled with mandatory online training for all staff.
She says early indications are that the policy revision is being implemented in most districts “without too much angst” and with “improved decision-making and reporting throughout the country”.
A review of all fleeing driver notifications is expected to help Police understand what is happening in practice and allow feedback to be shared with districts.
When a fleeing driver is not apprehended at the time of an event, officers must complete follow-up investigations using all avenues of inquiry, such as CCTV, witnesses, officer knowledge and “basic police work” to identify the vehicle and driver.
Before the revised policy, Police says, 30 per cent of fleeing driver events were resolved by investigation “without risk to the public, vehicle occupants or police”.
Kelly says the resolution rate through investigations is “better than all the Australian states, apart from Queensland, which sits at 31 per cent”.
She expects multiple “positive” outcomes from the revised policy, including:
- A reduction in the number of pursuit-related crashes, deaths and serious injuries.
- A reduction in the number of pursuits because of: prior planning and alternative action being taken to apprehend wanted offenders/drivers, thereby avoiding both pursuits and fleeing driver events; decisions made before signalling a driver to stop that a pursuit is not justified because the level of offending does not outweigh the risks associated with a pursuit.
- An increase in fleeing driver events because events that previously would have been pursuits are now being classed as fleeing drivers; and increased reporting of fleeing driver events, which were previously not well reported.
- A potential increase in fleeing driver events being resolved through investigations.
Kelly also suggests that the revised policy is likely to result in fewer post-crash investigations.
Police Association vice-president Mike McRandle says members’ safety is a priority, plus, if members are not having to deal with the “awful consequences of fatal crashes and injuries” that is a good outcome for everyone.
“Making people more accountable for the serious risk posed by fleeing drivers is one of the key factors that needs to be changed. Fleeing from police should become the substantive offence above any others.”
The association supports the new approach but is well aware of push-back from some staff and is mindful of the need to understand the consequences of the changes, including how such incidents will be recorded.
Important principles that Police is reinforcing to staff are:
- The decision about whether to pursue or not should be made before signalling the driver to stop.
- A driver failing to stop or remain stopped is not in itself sufficient reason to pursue.
- A decision to not pursue or to abandon a pursuit will be supported.
- An investigation is preferred over a pursuit.
- Dispatchers are empowered to abandon pursuits.
Kelly says the aim is to be open and transparent. Police report quarterly to the Police Minister and the IPCA, and related research and documents have been publicly released through the Police website.
Police says the revision is intended to reduce the risk of serious injury or death occurring during pursuits. “We need to ensure our response to drivers who choose to flee is appropriate and proportionate to the level of risk they pose and is as safe as possible.”
But what about persistent offenders?
The response in an official FAQ document is not quite so targeted, focusing instead on prevention and “working with iwi, community organisations and other government agencies”.
Meanwhile, it may take time to allay the concerns of some members. Senior Sergeant Al Fenwick, in a letter to Police News last month, said this: “The stats around abandonment show that although our previous policy wasn’t perfect, our decision-making was trending in the right direction. The public still expect us to pursue the bad guys, car thieves and drunks on our roads. Who, in our victim-focused organisation, gets the job of telling those victims it was a good idea to let them go?”
The Evidenced-Based Police Centre (EBPC) has completed six tranches of research on the motivations of fleeing drivers, including canvassing the public view through a series of focus groups.
Participants generally supported the idea of greater discretion and high thresholds being used by police when deciding whether to pursue. The participants also supported the use of alternatives such as helicopters and greater emphasis on investigations to identify offenders.
Some participants believed the punishment for fleeing drivers needed to be harsher, although many felt that any consequences needed to address the underlying reasons for fleeing behaviour.
The complexity of fleeing driver behaviour was also examined by the EBPC. Research literature on the deterrent effects of punishment suggested that increasing the severity of penalties for failing to stop would have little effect on offending. “For fleeing drivers, this appears to be a complicated relationship, as the main motivation given by many is the punishment (for other offences) they believe they may be able to avoid by fleeing.”
Police knows that this [policy shift] requires a culture and mindset change to align operational practice with policy.
Bringing it to a standstill
Apart from not pursuing fleeing drivers, there are other proactive options used by law enforcement authorities to try to solve one of the most difficult situations faced by police – drivers who won’t stop when required.
In the United States, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is involved in the development and evaluation of technologies that aim to end high-speed pursuits before they endanger life or property, and to catch criminals before they can escape.
In 1995, the NIJ and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory developed RoadSpike, a tyre-deflation device, which is now used around the world.
Other technologies not available in New Zealand include:
- Electronic discharge devices. These emit a series of short-range electromagnetic (EM) pulses that disrupt or destroy vehicle electronics. NIJ reports that in the early to mid-2000s, it funded research into an electronic discharge device called Road Sentry. It requires close proximity to the vehicle and must be placed on the road and, as a result, NIJ said, it shares many of the same concerns and limitations of tyre-deflation devices.
- Electromagnetic radiation devices. A microwave source used to immobilise a vehicle by interfering with the microprocessors that control critical functions such as the ignition and fuel pump. NIJ reports that a prototype it tested was able to shut down the engine of a 1999 Honda Accord with a single pulse.
- Directed energy devices. As with electronic discharge devices, directed energy devices use an EM pulse to short a vehicle’s electrical system. The difference is that they don’t have to be close to the target vehicle. In a field test, the device was able to stop the engine of a Plymouth Voyager from as far as 18 metres away. Sensors in the vehicle showed that the microwaves would not have harmed a passenger or disrupted the workings of medical equipment, such as a pacemaker or hearing aid. However, any other vehicle in its radius would also be affected. For such devices to be viable, NIJ said future development needed to ensure the pulses affected only the target vehicle.
- Remote tracking (pictured). About 50 police departments in the US use a pursuit management technology called StarChase – a device fitted to the front of patrol vehicles that uses compressed air to fire a GPS projectile that sticks to the fleeing vehicle. The projectile is launched by pushing a button on a key tag and can be done while a vehicle is stationary or moving. It can also be fired from a hand-held device that looks like a rifle. The GPS unit transmits real-time data to software that can be installed on an iPhone. It shows the vehicle location and direction of travel, allowing pursuing units to fall back and adopt a cordon-and-contain role. In case studies reviewed by the NIJ, there were no injuries, deaths or property damage and there was an 80 per cent apprehension rate for suspects in tagged vehicles.