The horror crash of a stolen car in Christchurch recently caused the death of three teenage boys.
It is impossible to imagine the suffering such a tragedy will bring to the families and friends of the victims, or to the police officers involved in the incident.
Naturally, conversations quickly shift from horror, to sympathy, to questioning whether police were right to initiate the chase — especially when many who choose to flee from police are so young.
Dozens of New Zealanders have been killed in police chases over the past 10 years, many of them teenagers.
Sunday's victims included the 16-year-old driver and two 13-year-olds.
The driver was clearly not able or willing to make sensible decisions when faced with a series of conflicts.
He chose to steal cars. He chose to flee instead of face the consequences of being found by police. He chose to drive at extreme speeds and continue fleeing, despite the police abandoning the chase. It transpired that this was not new to him — he had stolen cars and fled police previously over the past few months.
But no matter what those boys had done or what choices they were making, they were young and had time on their side. Time to grow, to mature, to reflect, to be inspired, to change.
They were car thieves and, it is fair to say, hooligans. But they were also children. Death was far too harsh a sentence.
Here, though, is where we must be careful in the wake of such tragedies. To see these boys' deaths as a sentence handed out by the police officers who initiated the chase, or those officers who laid the road spikes, is to considerably misconstrue the situation.
The police were aware of a series of car thefts in the previous few months. That context matters.
Theft, especially theft of something as valuable, important and, at times, personal, as a car, is a crime impossible to appreciate until it has been experienced.
It is the police's job to do what they can to ensure such crimes are both solved and prevented. They were doing that job when they chose to pursue a fleeing driver in a stolen car.
Banning police from such pursuits serves two purposes, both of them unwanted. Firstly, it hinders the ability of police to do their job while incentivising criminals to flee at speed from authorities. For the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders such an outcome is unacceptable.
Secondly, it shifts the responsibility for these accidents away from those who are to blame. No matter the sympathy and heartache we can feel as we learn a parent has lost their sons, we can also accept it was the boys themselves who were responsible.
Is 16 years old, or 13 for that matter, too young to shoulder such responsibility? Perhaps, but that is where family, friends, a community, a society, must step in. If there is blame to be apportioned in such tragedies it is that for some, this society we have created is not working. We have to continue asking why, continue trying harder to ensure those who choose crime have every opportunity to choose something better.
But if they do not, the police must be empowered to do their jobs. They should not be forced to turn a blind eye to criminals if those criminals choose to flee by motor vehicle.
We can never ensure accidents don't happen, nor can we ever ensure every member of our society will live in a manner the majority deem acceptable. That's a risk we take when we live among each other.
We should always discuss and seek answers on how we can minimise tragedies, accidents and the deaths of our young people.
But the answer to this tragedy is not to be found in the hamstringing of police.
- Otago Daily Times