Editorial: Don't blame police for pursuit deaths

By Scott Inglis


The tragic case of two men dying after a high-speed police pursuit highlights one of the major problems police face on the front line - the balancing act between catching criminals and keeping people safe.

Police have been 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 Independent Police Conduct Authority report, published on the front page of yesterday's edition, found the Tauranga officers should have abandoned the car chase well before it ended in tragedy because of the high speeds involved.

Thankfully, no innocent civilians were injured or killed.

I feel sorry for the officers involved in this mess.

I can't begin to imagine what it is like for police who have to make split-second decisions as they try to enforce the law, try to stop criminals from hurting others, and then try not to get themselves or anyone else injured or killed through their own actions.

What a nightmare.

I also feel sorry for the families left behind. Keepa's grandmother concedes the pair had "done wrong" and does not blame the police. She does, however, believe police should not pursue fleeing drivers.

I don't agree. The officers did the right thing by initially chasing Keepa and Wilson because the pair evaded a checkpoint.

Drink driving remains one of the biggest threats to life on our roads and it can be presumed that anyone who tries to avoid being pulled over is either drunk or breaking the law in some other way.

It would also send a terrible message to criminals and society if police did not at least make an effort to catch drivers who refuse to stop.

But police pursuits are fraught with danger. High speeds, desperate criminals, environmental factors, the actions of innocent civilians and police making high-pressure decisions create a potentially explosive cocktail that means police need to stop the moment it becomes too dangerous.

In this case, the independent inquiry found the pursuit officers should have pulled out several times before they did, and failed to tell communications staff of the speed limit areas they were in.

The authority also criticised police for using substandard road spikes, and for trying to use them on a vehicle travelling more than 100 km/h. It also criticised the pursuit controllers.

The authority concluded staff involved should be reminded of the risks of pursuing at high speeds and to check their equipment before going on duty.

Some people might say this finding is too light and the officers should have been censured or punished.

I am not one of them.

Yes, police made serious mistakes - but they are not the criminals here.

Keepa and Wilson are. They were speeding in a stolen vehicle, and failed to stop.

The ultimate blame rests with Wilson, the fleeing driver.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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