Editorial: Don't blame police for actions of criminals

By Dylan Thorne

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The fraught nature of police work has again been highlighted in the findings of an Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) investigation into a high-speed pursuit on Tauranga's main road.

The authority found the policeman put the public at risk by pursuing a drunk driver on the wrong side of the road. The chase ended with a crash but the police union is defending the officer's actions, saying the risks were taken by the fleeing driver.

The report, published in yesterday's edition, detailed how two police officers pursued Conrad Oscar Rewita and Teepee Laison, 30 and 33, who were in a stolen vehicle after the car's owner was assaulted and robbed in downtown Tauranga.

Rewita overshot the corner of Cameron Rd and Elizabeth St, and ended up on the wrong side of the road with officers close behind.

The vehicles reached speeds of 95.4km/h between Elizabeth St and 9th Ave before the stolen car crashed into a light pole and tree.

The authority found police had reasonable grounds to try to stop the car, but the actions of the officer driving were unjustified, placing Rewita and Laison, the public and police at risk.

On reflection, the pursuit was risky and should have been called off. Thankfully no innocent members of the public were injured or killed. However, it is important to remember police do not have the luxury of time when making decisions about whether or not to pursue a criminal. These decisions are made in a split second in high-pressure situations.

It is not the first time Bay police have been criticised for the way pursuits have been carried out.

In 2012 Bay police were criticised following the deaths of Harley Wilson and Michael Keepa.

Keepa and Wilson were in a stolen car and evaded an alcohol checkpoint in Mount Maunganui.

Police pursued them at speeds of up to 110km/h in a 50km/h zone before abandoning the chase just before the vehicle hit a tree in Te Puke in October 2010.

An IPCA report found the Tauranga officers should have abandoned the car chase well before it ended in tragedy because of the high speeds involved.

Such cases have been the subject of debate. There have been calls for the police to restrict pursuits. It is unlikely though that the public would support a policy under which police do not pursue criminals in cars who fail to stop.

This was the finding of a major review into police pursuits in 2010.

That review also stated "if criminals know that police will not pursue them, or have so many restrictions placed on them it renders pursuits futile then the job of the police to uphold the law not only becomes difficult but almost impossible".

This is true, but several variables need to be assessed. The risks of endangering officers, the public and those being pursued must be weighed against the benefits of apprehending offenders.

If we consider the pursuit of Rewita and Laison, we know that the car they were in had been stolen and the owner had been assaulted and robbed downtown.

This is a serious crime and the public would expect the police to do their utmost to apprehend the pair.

The irony is the police officer did just that but ended up being criticised for placing the public at further risk.

As this paper has noted before, police make mistakes but they are not the criminals. The ultimate blame lies with the fleeing driver.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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