Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Time to put brakes on deadly police chases

Photo / NZ Herald
Photo / NZ Herald

How many more young New Zealanders have to die before the police - and Parliament - concede that patrol cars are a much more deadly weapon than the Glock pistol and the Bushmaster carbine?

In the past 10 years, police shot and killed seven people - one an innocent bystander - in the course of duty. But in 2010 alone, 18 fleeing drivers - or their passengers - died as a direct consequence of high-speed police pursuits. Last weekend, four South Auckland boys died in a horrendous ending to a police chase.

The Counties-Manukau district commander, Superintendent John Tims, blamed the dead driver. He said the tragedy was avoidable, and four lives were too high a price to pay for the thrill of a speedy ride. "There is a simple and persistent message to all drivers, especially young drivers: that when police ask you to stop, please stop."

What the police avoid saying is that this was a bunch of joyriding kids, fuelled, it seems, by alcohol. They weren't even in a stolen car. Imagine the uproar if the police had shot the four for refusing to pull over.

Yet the record shows initiating high-speed chases, with both the young police driver and the pursued pumped full of adrenaline, too often ends with equally deadly consequences. Not just for the drivers either. In this case, three innocent passengers, whose lives the police are sworn to protect, died as well.

Two days before, two drivers were injured, one seriously, on the Ellerslie-Panmure Highway as a result of a high-speed chase. Two months before, four 16- to 17-year-old girls were injured, three critically, in a high-speed chase lasting "a minute" after police responded to reports they were fighting outside a Mission Bay restaurant.

In none of these incidents did the outcome fit the crime. In each, a police officer had suspected something "fishy" was going on and turned on the siren. The driver had refused to stop. A foolish, spur-of-the-moment mistake for sure, but not a capital offence. We don't have Sharia law in New Zealand making speeding, or having an expired licence, or driving a stolen car, an offence punishable by the loss of a leg, or arm, or a life - both for the driver and his passengers and any unlucky passersby. Indeed, the standard fine imposed by the courts for failing to stop is in the low hundreds of dollars.

In 2009, after a string of calamitous police chases, Justice Lowell Goddard, the chairwoman of the Independent Police Conduct Authority, conducted a comprehensive review of the police pursuit policy and was highly critical.

The background was that between December 2003 and December 2008, 137 pursuits resulted in death or serious bodily harm. Fifty of these pursuits were for minor traffic offences, 40 for potentially "imprisonable" traffic offences such as "boy racer" activity. A further 13 were "without any specific reason".

Justice Goddard said "the authority questions the value of pursuits that begin over driving offences such as speeding, careless driving or suspect drunken driving without observable, immediate threat to public safety".

She added, "There is little benefit to the public in police taking action that is likely to make a potentially dangerous situation worse." She questioned the value of pursuits that begin over property and car theft, or just "general suspicion", when "the effect of the pursuit is not only to increase danger to the public but also to risk harm to the property police are seeking to recover".

She said a decision to pursue should "be based solely on safety considerations".

Her wise words fell on deaf ears, the police continuing to lay the blame on the errant driver. Yet a string of recent post-chase "inquests" by the Independent Police Conduct Authority highlight an out-of-control constabulary.

The news reports tell the story.

June 22, 2012: "Police were 'unjustified' in pursuing a car through the streets of Auckland at speeds of up to 150km/h, a chase which ended in a fatal crash, the Independent Police Conduct Authority has found."

August 31, 2012: Breaches of police policy have been identified during a pursuit that ended when the fleeing driver crashed and died near Taipa in Northland on April 17, 2011.

September 4, 2012: "Police have been heavily criticised for failing to abandon a pursuit that endangered the public and culminated in the deaths of two young men."

September 28, 2012 : "An independent investigation of a fatal police pursuit in Te Puke in October 2010 has found police were justified in initially trying to stop the driver but should have subsequently abandoned the pursuit because of a number of risk factors."

February 4, 2013: "At least 11 patrol cars and the police helicopter were unnecessarily pursuing a motorcyclist at speeds up to 122km/h when he crashed and suffered severe brain injuries, a police conduct review has found."

Tasmanian police decided to put an end to this unnecessary killing and maiming in 1999. Officers are banned from exceeding the speed limit, except in the case of serious crimes. Queensland followed suit recently.

The Tasmanian police guidelines spell it out. "The sworn duty to protect life and property will always have primacy over the need to apprehend offenders, especially when the offence involved is relatively minor."

They continue: "This duty clearly extends to the occupants of pursued vehicles, who are statistically most at risk of being injured during a pursuit."

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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