Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Death too high a price to pay for fleeing

Police Minister Judith Collins. Photo / APN
Police Minister Judith Collins. Photo / APN

The mob can be an ugly beast, especially when it's stirred up by a professional rabble-rouser like police ayatollah, Judith Collins.

Fleeing motorists are criminals, she says. If they die, it's their fault. "Let them crash and burn," chant her talk-back and online devotees. For the National Party, Mrs Collins is taking the personal responsibility credo into uncharted territory.

If the maimed and dead motorists are the authors of their own misfortune, and serve them right for not stopping, then who next do we turn our backs on? The suicide victim; the errant pedestrian who gets collected by a bus in Ponsonby Rd or Manners Mall; the teenager who ignores the warning sign and leaps to his death at a favourite swimming hole?

What Mrs Collins ignores when she labels as criminals every driver who fails to stop when signalled to by a police officer, is that the penalty for this offence is not the loss of an arm or a leg or life. The maximum fine under the Land Transport Act is $10,000, and under the Crimes Act $1000.

But the courts usually impose a fine in the low hundreds.

The judges accept what Mrs Collins doesn't - that this isn't a capital offence.

On Mrs Collins' watch, 18 fleeing drivers - or their passengers - have died this year as a direct result of the police's pursuit policy, yet the minister doesn't believe there is a problem. If she doesn't, Justice Lowell Goddard, chairman of the Independent Police Conduct Authority, certainly does.

A year ago, after a comprehensive review of the policy, the IPCA made some scathing criticisms of the pursuit policy and some important recommendations. Thirteen months later, they're still being "discussed".

Noting the international trends to abandon the gung-ho approach of the New Zealand Police, Justice Goddard wrote: "The authority questions the value of pursuits that begin over driving offences such as speeding, careless driving or suspected drunk driving without observable, immediate threat to public safety.

"There is little benefit to the public in police taking action that is likely to make a potentially dangerous situation worse."

The report added that "similarly, the authority questions the value of pursuits that begin over vehicle or property theft 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.

"It is furthermore very difficult to see justification for pursuits that begin after a driver has been signalled to stop on general suspicion, without any offence being known to police."

Declaring that "the current policy does not achieve an appropriate balance between risks and benefits", the authority said a decision to pursue should "be based solely on safety considerations", adding "the risk to public safety from not stopping an offender should be the principal determining factor justifying the decision to commence and continue a pursuit".

This decision should be "based on known facts, rather than general suspicion or speculation that a person who flees may have committed a more serious offence".

Consideration should also be given to the age of the driver and the presence of passengers.

Police figures reveal that between April 2004 and May 2007, in 23.5 per cent of pursuits offenders' vehicles crashed and in 3.9 per cent of pursuits a police vehicle crashed. The report notes that international reports suggest crash rates could be as high as 40 per cent and speculates on the accuracy of pursuit reporting.

The IPCA zeroed in on the 137 pursuits resulting in death or serious bodily harm that had been reported between December 2003 and December 2008. In that five-year period, 24 people died (this year, 18 deaths have occurred). Of these, 14 were fleeing drivers, six were passengers in fleeing cars, three were innocent members of the public and one was a police officer.

In addition, 91 suffered serious injuries - of these, 33 were drivers of pursued vehicles, 40 were passengers and 18 were innocent bystanders.

Of the 137 pursuits, 50 were triggered by traffic offences not punishable by imprisonment - 32 for speeding, seven for not having lights on, two for failing to stop at a checkpoint. Thirteen came after police tried to stop someone "without any specific reason", and 40 drivers were suspected of imprisonable traffic offending, including 10 alleged "boy racer" offences, 12 suspected drinking offences and 11 dangerous driving incidents.

Of the rest, 31 were for "known or suspected criminal offending", including 13 for car conversion. Cars, presumably, destroyed in the chase.

These are Mrs Collins' "criminals" - the people she is happy to sit back and let die or be maimed on her watch.

Of course they made a stupid decision in not stopping, but the death, injury and widespread damage to property caused by the ensuing high-speed chase is surely an unacceptable price to pay.

In continuing to ignore the Goddard report, personal responsibility for the blood-letting lies firmly with Mrs Collins and her Cabinet colleagues.

- 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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