Police criticised over fatal pursuit

By Amy McGillivray, Joseph Aldridge -
The pursuit started just after 5am when the Hilux tried to avoid a police breath test in Mount Maunganui. Photo / File
The pursuit started just after 5am when the Hilux tried to avoid a police breath test in Mount Maunganui. Photo / File

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

An Independent Police Conduct Authority report, just released, has found that Tauranga police should have abandoned a high-speed car chase before it ended in the deaths of Harley Wilson and Michael Keepa.

Mr Wilson and Mr Keepa died soon after the stolen vehicle they were driving slid down a bank and crashed into a tree in Te Puke in October, 2010.

The Toyota Hilux 4x4 was travelling at about 110km/h in a 50km/h zone, when the driver lost control of the vehicle.

Police, who had been chasing the vehicle for about 17 minutes, had just pulled out of the pursuit when the accident happened.

The pursuit, which started just after 5am when the Hilux tried to avoid a police breath test in Mount Maunganui, eventually involved eight police officers in four vehicles, and reached speeds of 160km/h.

At one stage, officers tried to use road spikes to stop the fleeing vehicle. However, the driver managed to swerve around the spikes.

Judge Sir David Carruthers concluded that while police were justified in pursuing the Hilux initially, they should have called off the pursuit on several subsequent occasions because of the unacceptably high speed involved.

"The sustained high speeds reached by the pursuing officers were dangerous to the public, the occupants of the Toyota 4x4 and the officers themselves," Judge Carruthers concluded.

The driver, Mr Wilson, showed no intention of stopping and was driving at speeds "far in excess of the posted speed limit".

Mr Keepa's grandmother, Lee Keepa, said she did not believe police should engage in pursuits.

"The boys had done wrong but I don't believe in the chase. I know the kids these days are cheeky and arrogant but the police go fast, the kids go faster. Perhaps there is another way."

But Mrs Keepa, who raised her grandson for most of his life, is happy with the police response.

"I'm not blaming the police," she said. "I think that by the look of it officers will all be spoken to ... It doesn't matter if it's right or wrong but it won't bring him back."

Judge Carruthers also criticised officers for not checking the road spikes before they joined the pursuit and for attempting to use the spikes on a car which was known to be travelling at speeds exceeding 100km/h.

Police policies at the time restricted officers from using tyre deflation devices on vehicles travelling faster than 100km/h.

Judge Carruthers also criticised the pursuit controller who authorised the use of the spikes and allowed the pursuit to continue on several occasions when it was "unjustified".

The report also notes that pursuing officers did not adequately relay to the radio dispatcher and pursuit controller the speed limits in areas they were travelling through.

The police's Fleeing Driver policy now requires officers to continually relay the applicable speed limits during a pursuit.

As a result of the investigation, Judge Carruthers recommended that all staff involved in the pursuit, both frontline and support staff, be reminded of the risks of pursuing at such a high speed.

He also recommended reminding officers of the importance of carrying out a pre-deployment check of their patrol car and the equipment carried before use.

In a written statement, Bay of Plenty district commander Superintendent Glenn Dunbier said the recommendations had already been implemented.

"The officers involved have been reminded of the need to carry out pre-deployment checks of the equipment and the risks associated with high speed pursuits. Reminders of this nature are also issued on a routine basis to all staff across the Bay of Plenty," he said.

Mr Dunbier accepted that the officers were justified in initially trying to stop the vehicle but should have abandoned the pursuit sooner.

"It was a stolen vehicle and it was clear when the vehicle stopped short of an alcohol checkpoint that the occupants were trying to evade police. Police have a responsibility to both protect life and to enforce the law and it is often a difficult balance to strike."

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