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An officer was injured and this police vehicle was written off when an offender deliberately reversed into it during a fleeing driver incident in Northland. Photo: NZME

Trapped in a steel cage

Rammings are increasing year on year as offenders target police in their vehicles, putting lives at risk and causing millions of dollars in damage.

“Your targets were trapped in a steel cage in the form of a police car.”

That was how Tauranga District Court Judge Paul Mabey described a car-ramming attack on police officers. The two officers suffered head and neck injuries in the January 2018 incident and their police car was a write-off.

The offender then crashed head-on into another police car with such force that his vehicle ended up on the bonnet of the Police car.

The offender received a three-year sentence for offences including “assault with a weapon”. That weapon was a stolen vehicle and such attacks are on the rise, adding another layer of unpredictability and danger to frontline policing.

Since that incident, there have been more than 300 cases of offenders ramming police cars using another vehicle.

For the past seven years, the number of offences has been rising year on year, with 2019 exceeding all previous years with a 52 per cent increase – 187 incidents compared with 123 in 2018.

Police figures show car rammings are the second most common cause of damage to police vehicles (No 1 is police vehicles hitting a stationary object), closely followed by a “third party” hitting a parked police vehicle.

It’s a trend that is ringing alarm bells among Police Association members, who have expressed their concerns to the association.

Region 6 director Mike McRandle reported to the board in March this year that staff were seeing it happen more and more, with multiple vehicles also being taken out at times. He provided a photo of a rammed vehicle that had only been back on the road for one day after being seriously damaged months earlier.

So far this year, incidents of police cars being rammed have been racking up steadily, and include:

  • A multiple ramming incident in Tauranga in January which saw four police cars damaged.
  • A man using a stolen vehicle to repeatedly ram a police car in Christchurch in February.
  • A serious incident in Northland in February when a car was reversed at speed into a police vehicle, injuring an officer, followed by repeated attempts to ram other police vehicles.

These incidents seriously endanger staff in vehicles, and the associated costs of repairs and replacements are high.

Police figures show that the number of vehicles written off last year as the result of a crash or accident was 68, and 65 in 2018. The vehicle replacement bill for 2018 was nearly $3 million, an almost $1m increase on 2017.

Using cars as weapons seems to be an increasingly favoured tactic of the criminal fraternity, showing reckless disregard for others.

One of three police vehicles damaged, costing a total of $40,000, in a ramming incident in Napier in October 2018. Five officers were hurt in the incident. The offender was jailed for three years on charges including using a car as a weapon.

TWO CASES OF NOTE

Out of nowhere

Constable Steve Treloar pulled over a vehicle on a 100kmh section of SH1 near Allenton, Canterbury, just after 6pm on a dark evening last September. It was a routine stop for speeding. The driver didn’t have his licence on him, but produced a firearms licence, which Steve took back to the patrol car to check.

“About five seconds later, an unknown vehicle ploughed into the back of the car,” he recalls.

Not only did Steve get a hell of a shock, but, not wearing his seatbelt, he was thrown headfirst into the windscreen.

His first thought wasn’t for himself, however, but for the patrol car. “When you work in road policing, you know how valuable the cars are and the difficulty of having them out of action for any reason.”

Steve was also perplexed about what had just happened and assumed it had been an accident.

He was wondering if he had parked the patrol car badly when he looked over his shoulder and saw the driver of the Subaru Forester getting out of the vehicle. “I heard him screaming and I thought, ‘Is he mad at me or annoyed at himself?’ I could see he was very angry, and I didn’t know why. It was not the response I was expecting.”

Neither did he expect what happened next. “He pulled out a tomahawk and moved forward quickly, smashing the rear passenger window. He stepped forward to my door and telegraphed what was next.”

Steve, whose cellphone had flown out of his hand in the impact, grabbed the radio and sent a 10/10 message to comms before shuffling over the console and out the passenger door just as the offender smashed the tomahawk through the driver’s window.

He considered his options. “I had a Taser, but that was not a suitable or reliable option against a deadly weapon.”

The OC spray was his best bet if he could get close, but his overwhelming instinct in the face of an enraged man with an axe was, sensibly, to make a tactical withdrawal.

“I started to run and all I could hear behind me was incoherent screaming.
He was saying something, but I couldn’t make it out.”

Dunedin District Court was told later that the driver was yelling “Allahu Akbar”.

Steve kept running along the gravel shoulder while trying to radio in a sit-rep to comms, but the link had been deactivated when he scrambled over the console, so it wasn’t transmitting. A motorist, in a left-hand drive American car, stopped and asked Steve if he was okay. “I said, ‘Not really. Can I jump in?’

“We drove back towards the scene to find that the offender was continuing to smash up the car, including removing side panels. He was also going through my belongings and he put my hat and glo-jacket on.”

Steve borrowed the cellphone of the good Samaritan who had picked him up and called 111 and back-up arrived soon after.

Ruairi Kern Taylor, 24, has admitted charges related to assault and damage and is due to be sentenced later in May.

Steve’s fears about the patrol car being off the road were well founded. It was a write-off.

He says that since then there has been a lot of discussion among staff about car rammings becoming more common. While the motivation of the person who rammed into him was not totally clear, Steve says it seems there is always a percentage of people who are committed to not stopping for police and consider it is always an option to ram a car. “The word gets out among the criminal fraternity and they learn off each other.”

Reflecting on what happened, Steve says he was glad he was physically fit and agile enough to have got out of the car quickly and he is glad that, apart from a few cuts and a minor bump on his head, no harm came to him or anyone else.

Suffice to say, the driver initially pulled over by Steve took the opportunity to leave the scene.

Cat and mouse

Senior Constable Brent Homan, a dog handler based in Hamilton, was doing a nightshift in early November last year, with his dog Grit in the back of his police ute. Around 3am he responded to a report of an offender in a Holden stationwagon ramming a police car at the scene of a domestic incident in Morrinsville, and set out to find him.

What followed was a game of cat and mouse along the country roads between Morrinsville and the small village of Tahuna. Brent was trying to track down the offender and keep tabs on him, while the man repeatedly went after him, including ramming his police ute from the side and later trying to run him off the road at high speed.

At one point, the offender tried to reverse into Brent’s parked vehicle. “He was coming at me in reverse fast. I was holding my ground. When he was 10m away, I ducked into the other lane.”

The man then drove forward towards the back of Brent’s vehicle. “I didn’t want my dog rear-ended so I took off to Tahuna. He was chasing me and nudging me from behind. Then he drove up beside me, trying to nudge me off the road.”

This chase happened at speed, and was the one point where Brent said his “life briefly flashed before my eyes. I thought if I crashed at this speed, it could be quite dangerous”. He slammed on the brakes, and the other driver sped past to Tahuna.

Trying to locate him again in Tahuna, Brent parked in the school car park with his engine and lights off. It was very dark and he didn’t want the offender to see him. But the offender drove slowly towards him and his headlight caught Brent’s marked dog wagon. The man slowed down, turned and rammed the police vehicle on the passenger side.

The aggression of the driver was such that Brent retrieved his Glock pistol from the lock box in his vehicle and on two occasions, got out of his vehicle and fired it at the tyres of the offender’s car. By this stage, support had been called in, with units coming from Hamilton and the Eagle helicopter from Auckland.

Brent said he was confident he could justify his actions in using the firearm. “I was trying to incapacitate his vehicle, which he was using as a weapon. Comms were trying to organise places to lay out spikes. I was concerned about those police vehicles getting rammed.”

Eagle tracked down the offender as his vehicle was limping up a farm track with two blown-out tyres.

“I’ve been in some hairy situations, but this is probably the worst, because he was hunting me out.” Fortunately Brent was unhurt, and his dog Grit was unperturbed, as the impact on the ute wasn’t in the dog’s direction. His vehicle sustained some serious damage on the passenger’s side, but he was able to drive it home and it has since been repaired.

All the guys were aware that ramming police vehicles was a tactic increasingly used by offenders to get away, he said. “This is the first time it’s happened to me.”

Police vehicles were especially vulnerable to ramming when they pulled someone over. “When you get out, they reverse into the police car and take off. You just have to try to be savvy around that.

“When you pull cars over, you’re supposed to leave a car space between the vehicles. But sometimes I will park right up close behind the other vehicle if I think they may try to reverse into me, so they don’t have the space to do it,” Brent said.

A 56-year-old man was charged with five counts of assault on a person with a motor vehicle, which included the ramming attacks on Brent, and a variety of other charges including intentional damage, aggravated assault and operating a motor vehicle recklessly. He was sentenced to nine months’ home detention, following six months in custody on remand.

His first thought wasn’t for himself, however, but for the patrol car. “When you work in road policing, you know how valuable the cars are and the difficulty of having them out of action for any reason.”

One of two patrol cars left smashed and out of service after a fleeing driving/ramming incident in Tauranga.

‘Act of aggression against police’

Ramming of police cars used to be rare, but is now a commonly used
act of aggression towards police, says Police Association president Chris Cahill.

Chris says the volume and seriousness of incidents involving the ramming of police cars is of increasing concern to the association.

“A few years ago, these were relatively rare, normally involved youths and were to break through some form of roadblock. However now they are commonplace and are regularly used as an act of aggression towards police, seriously endangering a number of officers, risking serious injury or even death.

“Outside of this, they are creating a significant burden on the police vehicle fleet, as these vehicles are normally out of circulation for many weeks, if not the remainder of the financial year when budgets don’t allow for them to be replaced.”

The courts need to treat such tactics seriously, and see them as an aggravating factor in sentencing, Chris says. This should make it clear to offenders that such actions will result in higher penalties.

Police confirm post-Holden tender plans

Following Holden’s decision last year to stop manufacturing police vehicles, New Zealand Police has confirmed it is planning to seek tenders from the market for a new provider.

Police fleet manager Rob Morgan said Holden would continue to provide police vehicles to New Zealand through to early 2021.

If Police still needed to buy vehicles after that time, and before a new tender was finalised, it would do so through an “all of government” catalogue.

“Any vehicles from this catalogue will be subjected to testing to assess their suitability as a police vehicle,” he said.

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