The issue of drivers attempting to evade police strikes at the very heart of law enforcement – in any country.
It is the role of police officers to maintain law and order, and a huge part of that happens on the streets – be it alcohol stops, road policing, tracking stolen vehicles or apprehending known offenders.
It’s what police are trained to do and what the public expects.
Police national manager road policing Superintendent Steve Greally has said that Police’s pursuit policy, which has been tirelessly refined over the past two decades, is the best it can be.
Law-abiding drivers pull over when directed to by police. Those who don’t – approaching 4000 a year in New Zealand – may be pursued by police who are duty bound to follow precise protocols laid out in Police’s fleeing driver policy.
In the midst of these sometimes volatile, unpredictable and high-risk situations, safety is flagged as the priority.
When a pursuit begins it is immediately lodged with the comms centre, which takes control of the decision-making based on information from not only the police driver, but any passengers, secondary vehicles and field supervisors. Any of them can stop the pursuit if they believe it has become too risky for anyone involved.
More than half of all pursuits are abandoned, many of them only seconds after they begin.
Every police response to a fleeing driver situation is scrutinised, doubly so in the event of death or injury. While the IPCA (Independent Police Conduct Authority) most often finds that pursuits were justified, there may be aspects of Police policy not followed to the letter. The media spotlight follows.
It’s an uneasy balancing act for Police in general and our frontline members in particular.
All the good and right reasons for upholding the rule of law pale when a young person dies.
The number of people killed in fleeing driver incidents has been going up, rising every year between 2014, when there were two deaths, and 2017, when there were 12, and many of them were young teens.
Images of cars wrapped around trees and lampposts, smashed into other vehicles, crushed in a ditch or down a bank and the accompanying shocking details of the drivers’ ages – one in four are under 20 and some are as young as 13 – are hard to accept.
It’s not the outcome anyone wants – a summary and irreversible punishment that outweighs any possible repercussions had the drivers simply stopped their cars.
It has been this, more than anything else, that has led Police, lawmakers, social justice campaigners and wider society to try to find answers to this complex issue.
Some look to Queensland, and other Australian states, where pursuits have been banned. Queensland Police Association president Ian Leavers reported on the issue to the Police Association Conference last year. The upside of the 2012 policy change, he said, was that there had been no deaths since it was instituted. On the downside, the only drivers who now stopped for police were law-abiding people, while criminals continued to taunt officers to try to get them to engage in a pursuit.
For many people, that balance of the ledger is one they would prefer.
But, if social media comments, online feedback and public polls in New Zealand are anything to go by, the public here do not favour any relaxation of the existing policy, believing that would give criminals carte blanche on the roads.
A 1News Colmar Brunton poll last year showed 82 per cent of New Zealanders favour police continuing to chase fleeing drivers.
While two-thirds of association members (2017 NZPA Member Survey) believe the current policy strikes a reasonable balance between the need to apprehend an offender and the risks involved in pursuits, the idea of “letting them go” doesn’t sit well with all police.
One Auckland police officer, a sergeant with many years experience, believes that the well-intentioned policy of abandoning pursuits has led to “nightmarish unintended consequences”, including a rise in deaths.
“We have laid down the most foolish challenge to offenders imaginable – to drive as crazily as possible to try to force the police to give up,” he says.
He believes the situation with fleeing drivers is pretty much out of control. “Pursuits are routine and most of them are beyond crazy and include tricks such as driving on the wrong side of motorways and so, of course, we see a rising toll in injury and death.”
He has some suggestions: give up on the abandonment policy; stiffer penalties for reckless driving, including prison time; helicopters in all main centres; trained police in purpose-built vehicles to run fleeing drivers off the road, if need be.
It may sound radical, and expensive, but that’s one perspective from the frontline. His fear is that what might happen next will be a doubling down of what some perceive as the soft approach to fleeing drivers.
The purpose of the IPCA’s latest review is to “better understand the pursuit environment to identify any current issues with Police management of these events”.
It has looked into all police pursuits notified to the IPCA in 2017 – about 75 – that resulted in serious injury or death and a random 10 per cent sample of all other pursuits. It has been looking for common themes and areas of good practice.
Association president Chris Cahill has previously said in the media that if the solution to the fleeing driver problem was simple, it would already have been solved.
While he agrees that we should continue to question the value of attempting to stop those who drive dangerously and flee from police, he sees both sides of the issue.
Earlier this year, there was a tragedy in Christchurch when a stolen car being driving dangerously failed to stop for police. As the car continued to be driven recklessly, Police pulled out of the pursuit, as per protocol. Other officers then laid road spikes to try to stop the continuing risk. The driver crossed the spikes at speed and crashed into a tree. All three occupants died. The driver was 16 and his passengers were two 13-year-old boys.
Police were criticised in the media for laying the road spikes.
Mr Cahill says: “I have discussed with journalists and others the certain outrage there would be if officers had done nothing to stop this vehicles and it had careered through another red light at a perilous speed, hitting and killing one or more innocent members of the public.”
What isn’t generally made public is the toll that these tragedies also have on police officers. It is devastating for them to see these sorts of outcomes.
The IPCA has previously ruled in some fleeing driver cases that the risk of a pursuit outweighs the benefits. It’s hard to argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that that is not the case.
Most people accept that it is the manner of driving and the failure of drivers to stop that lead to crashes. It also raises questions over the decision-making behaviours of those behind the wheel.
Crashes involving drivers who are young and inexperienced provide frightening examples of the failure to understand the consequences of actions. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner says brain development evidence shows that a teenager’s pre-frontal cortex is not developed enough to allow them to objectively assess risks during police pursuits. “This makes them more likely to flee from police, even if they have committed only minor traffic offences.” Young people are also more likely to have passengers in their vehicles.
The commissioner is seeking a change in policy so that police no longer pursue vehicles after they fail to stop if they believe there are young people in the car.
Unfortunately, it is often very difficult to ascertain the age of a driver or passengers, especially at night.
And, Mr Cahill says, blanket “don’t pursue” policies are problematic. “The vast majority of pursuits are of people who are already driving dangerously. If police just backed off and the fleeing driver continued to drive dangerously, police would again be criticised for not doing something.
“It’s not as simple as saying just ignore dangerous driving. In the end, if the driver didn’t flee, there wouldn’t be a problem.”
As long as drivers, young and old, continue to make that life-threatening decision, for whatever reason, the problem won’t go away.
Meanwhile, the challenge for those who make the law and those who uphold it will be to keep thinking outside the box for answers. - ELLEN BROOK