Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Police chases a trigger for tragedy

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Sheep tale was a laugh but dire results of Papatoetoe pursuit show policy does more harm than good.

The rest of the world had a great guffaw at our expense last weekend over a 90-minute Queenstown police car chase through Lord of the Rings scenery, which ended with the getaway car meekly stopping to give way to a flock of sheep.

Read More:

What the flock! Sheep stop fugitives

That the sheep happened to be owned by a local police officer added to the mirth.

Unfortunately, most police chases are not so amusing. They often last as little as a minute or less, and in at least 25 per cent of cases the pursued car crashes with sometimes dreadful results.

Drivers, passengers and bystanders are left dead or maimed, with the stolen property the police often set out to recover destroyed.

The weekend the sheep were aiding an arrest in Queenstown, two young joy-riders in a stolen car in Papatoetoe fled from pursuing police. It was around 3.30am last Sunday.

Four minutes later, the 16-year-old female passenger was dead and the 15-year-old driver in a critical condition after crashing into an oncoming car. The other driver was shaken but unhurt.

The police put out the usual statement about their thoughts being with the families involved, and noting how "devastating" it also was for the police involved.

They then showed they'd learned nothing by pointing the finger at the 15-year-old driver: "This once again demonstrates the tragic consequences which can happen if a driver chooses not to stop for police."

How many more people will have to die before the police hierarchy accepts that if their sworn duty is to protect and preserve life and property, then setting often young, adrenaline-filled officers to chase young adrenaline-filled youths in high-powered cars, is an exceedingly stupid way of carrying out that mission.

Detective Senior Sergeant Dave Glossop told 3News the police's "biggest concern is that there will be another death. It's Russian roulette." It is.

And by giving chase, the police ensure the gun is loaded and greatly shorten the odds of a dire outcome.

As with Sunday's horrendous crash, they're often chasing children. The two girls were reportedly involved in a gang initiation which required them to lure police to chase them.

Photo / James Allan
Photo / James Allan

At that age their brains are still developing. Especially the areas involving good judgment and the like. That's why we don't give them the vote at that age. Or let them sign contracts.

Stuck behind the wheel of a powerful car - possibly stolen and unfamiliar - with a mate egging them on, the chances of them pulling over when a flashing police car starts pursuing them is not guaranteed. But that doesn't mean they deserve to die, or end up maimed in a hospital bed.

Independent Police Complaints Authority chairman Sir David Carruthers made this point in a finding relating to a May 2013 chase in Tauranga which ended with a passenger suffering a ruptured spleen.

He said police tail-gating the offender's car at almost twice the 50km/h speed limit on the wrong side of the road, just two to three car lengths behind, "may have placed the fleeing driver under further pressure, leading him to take greater risks with his driving".

In 2009, Sir David's predecessor, Justice Lowell Goddard, produced a scathing critique of the pursuit policy, questioning "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".

The two girls were reportedly involved in a gang initiation which required them to lure police to chase them

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

She also questioned the value of pursuits after stolen cars that increased danger to the public and risked "harm to the property police are seeking to recover".

She found that in the five years to December 2008, there were 137 pursuits resulting in 24 deaths and 91 serious injuries.

Only 47 of the victims were the fleeing driver. The rest were either fleeing passengers or innocent citizens.

Fifty chases were triggered by traffic offences not punishable by imprisonment, 13 "without any specific reason".

In Australia, Tasmania banned pursuits relating to traffic offences and stolen cars in 1999. Queensland followed in 2012. It's past time we adopted the Goddard findings and followed suit.

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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