Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Pursuit death a heavy toll for crime of idiocy

Growing roll of teens killed fleeing cops demands fresh look at chase policy. Photo / Peter Bromhead
Growing roll of teens killed fleeing cops demands fresh look at chase policy. Photo / Peter Bromhead

How many "bubbly," best nieces in the world, like 17-year-old tourism student Moana Matthews, are going to die unnecessarily in high-speed car chases before the police abandon their deadly pursuit policies.

Early Sunday morning, Moana, chased because of erratic, speeding driving, flipped her car into a stream in Rotorua and died. Three companions ended up in hospital. In most Australian states, such a pursuit would have been forbidden.

Late last week, the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA), which has long called for reforms, released another critical report into a high-speed chase, this time by the Armed Offenders Squad in Christchurch in November 2014.

In that pursuit of a suspected drug courier, the fleeing car crossed the centre line, seriously injuring three elderly occupants of a passing car plus two occupants of the car being chased. The authority criticised the poor planning of the operation.

For years, the IPCA has been badgering the police about their gung ho pursuit policy. In 2009, then chairwoman Justice Lowell Goddard questioned "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 said there was "little benefit to the public in police taking action that is likely to make a potentially dangerous situation worse".

Unfortunately, backed by politicians who fear to be seen as "soft on crime," the police continue to ignore this wise advice. In February the IPCA's operations manager Warren Young repeated this call for a review before the parliamentary Law and Order Committee, arguing that too many young people were dying. He said they wanted to prevent the deaths of people who were not a danger to the public but had just made a bad decision.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush was quick to deny any need for a change.

"We have a real low tolerance for risk," he told RNZ's Morning Report. "Our staff withdraw from any fleeing driver incident as soon as it gets dangerous," he said.

"There's no easy fix to this and I think we've got it as close as possible to having the right approach."

The roll of teenage deaths this year suggests otherwise.

In Papatoetoe in early January, the 15-year-old driver of a stolen car was critically injured and the 16-year-old passenger killed after they crashed into another car while fleeing police. Later that month, a 14-year-old driver crashed his stolen car in Masterton with the police in hot pursuit. Two 15-year-old mates died at the scene and another was hospitalised.

In May, the passenger in a pursued car in Porirua died and the driver was seriously injured. In June, a chased car in Whangarei turned and hit the police car, critically injuring the fleeing driver.

Police Minister Judith Collins' solution is to threaten harsher penalties - as though death is not bad enough. She wants to crush cars and the like. In February, Labour's police spokesman Stuart Nash agreed saying "there's nothing more powerful than a visual of a car being crushed".

It's as though they've never been a teenager themselves, or drunk, and/or done something stupid behind the wheel of a car. It's part of being a teenager to not think about consequences. Or to prioritise them incorrectly, worrying more about getting caught, or being mocked by their mates, than smashing into a tree at high speed.

Indeed, in the case of the Papatoetoe crash, it was reported that being pursued by police was part of a girl gang initiation. Stupid indeed. But not deserving of death by police chase.

Across the Tasman, in Victoria, Queensland, West Australia and the Capital Territory, a more enlightened policy is in place. Pursuits are only permitted if the offender is high-risk or lives are threatened. Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said "this is rarely the case," when introducing the policy in 2012.

He said "the juvenile behaviour" of an offender "should not trigger a potentially life-threatening response by police".

"I have personally had to tell a father that his teenager died as a result of a police pursuit. I never want another one of our officers to have to go through that awful task."

- 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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