Editorial: Safety for all is top priority in police pursuits

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Photo / Sarah Ivey
Photo / Sarah Ivey

Police Minister Judith Collins has dismissed calls for a rethinking of the policy on pursuit of fleeing drivers.

"We have a few instances where people refuse to stop ... and I'm not going to stand by and ask police to wave goodbye to them as they continue down a criminal path," she said yesterday.

But unfortunately, those few instances have led to 16 deaths this year, almost three times the previous worst annual figure for police chases. This can be no random occurrence. How many fatalities will it take, including, perhaps, those of innocent bystanders, before the minister acknowledges a change of policy is required?

Her instinct in supporting the current approach will be shared by many. A policy that lets offenders flee is foreign to most people, not least the police, whose job is to uphold the law. But this, as in many areas of policing, involves an issue of balance.

The risks of endangering officers, the public, and those being pursued must be weighed against the benefits of apprehension.

The loss of life this year suggests the present policy is anything but balanced.

That conclusion is supported by figures released to the Herald under the Official Information Act. They show that before last weekend's two chase fatalities, the pursuits that led to 14 deaths this year were sparked by minor offences, not serious crimes.

Only one of the nine police chases followed "suspected criminal offending" and that was minor - a laser light being shone at traffic from a motorway overbridge.

In other instances, the reasons for pursuit was given as the manner of driving, suspected drink-driving and speed. It is reasonable to ask whether pursuits should be mounted only when more serious crimes have been committed.

This is well-traversed territory in New Zealand and overseas, where the clear trend has been to restrict the discretion to give chase. In New Zealand, there have been four police reviews of the issue in the past six years. The latest, in mid-year, rejected major change and concentrated on the expanded training for police staff, limiting the number of cars involved in chases, and suchlike.

This has had no noticeable effect, and the number of pursuits continues to be about fivefold that of seven years ago. Indeed, it is very likely that Government legislation dealing with the confiscation and crushing of cars has added to the problem. On the one hand, it has provided an incentive for apprehension. On the other, it has given boy racers and others good reason to run from the police.

A prudent policy will seek to minimise as far as possible the perils raised by chases. In that context, the severity of the crime should be paramount in dictating how far a pursuit will be taken. The Independent Police Complaints Authority has gone along this path, saying the risk to public safety from not stopping an offender should be the principal factor justifying a decision to pursue. It has said, also, that the number of chases would be reduced markedly if they were based on known facts, rather than suspicion or speculation.

None of this is to suggest the police should not chase drivers who have been involved in violent offences and other crimes of a serious nature. Or that the officers on the spot are not the best judges of when and when not to pursue. But the current approach has created a situation where the reward of apprehension is too often outweighed by the dangers inherent in a pursuit. This is especially so if the driver has been identified or, as with speed cameras, a vehicle's details have been recorded.

In such instances and where the offending is minor, officers should appreciate the bigger safety picture and pull back. At some point, the Police Minister will have to reach the same conclusion.

- NZ Herald

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