If the police killed off as many New Zealanders with wayward bullet shots, as die as a result of police car chases, there'd be uproar.

But somehow we remain blasé about the death and destruction resulting from gung-ho road cops succumbing to the same sort of "red mist" foolhardiness that overwhelms the "bad guys" they decide to pursue along our public roads.

Following last weekend's horrendous triple fatality, Assistant Commissioner for road policing, Sandra Venables was once again quick to blame the fleeing drivers. "He or she has to take more responsibility and make better decisions. We would hope people would just realise it's better to stop and talk to the police officer." she said.

Rejecting calls for a change of this deadly policy, she said the police had "to strike a balance between the responsibility to protect life and the duty to enforce the law."


Yet the record shows the police haven't got this balance right. Between October 2016 and September last year, seven deaths and 552 crashes were recorded as a result of police chases. This mayhem is not new. There's a long history of between one in four and one in five of police pursuits ending in a wrecked car, along with ambulance loads of drivers, passengers and bystanders left maimed or dead. Six people have died in police pursuits in the last five months alone.

Often the chase is triggered by something trivial like a minor traffic infringement.

Defending the status quo, Police union boss Detective Inspector Chris Cahill, claims existing rules are "very strict," requiring the officer instigating the chase to immediately notify the police communications centre, which then takes control. This, he says, takes the decision making "away from the police officer in the car who may get tunnel vision, who may have the adrenalin rush going on."

In saying this, he admits that the road cop is subject to the same "thrill of the chase" weaknesses as the driver he's pursuing. The deadly flaw in the policy is, this reference to higher authority happens after the sirens and flashing lights have been switched on and the pursuit has begun. By then it's too late. The adrenalin on both sides has kicked in, and the race has begun.

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Even if the cop obeys an order to pull back, the hyped-up fleeing driver doesn't know.

The Police and Police Minister Stuart Nash are now hiding behind yet another review of existing chase policy by the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) due to be finished later this year.

We don't need any more reviews. In 2009, then chair of the IPCA, Justice Lowell Goddard delivered a scathing critique, 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". She said "there is little benefit to the public in police taking action that is likely to make a potentially dangerous situation worse."

She noted that in the previous five years, pursuits had resulted in 24 deaths and 91 serious injuries, and that only 47 of the victims were the fleeing driver. Subsequently, the IPCA has continued to criticise the pursuit policy.


Back in August 2016, after 17 year old tourism student Moana Matthews died after flipping her car into a Rotorua stream, chased because of her erratic driving, I argued for adoption of the approach adopted in several Australian state, which restricts chases to when lives are threatened or the offender is high risk. Then Police union chief Greg O'Connor rounded on me, suggesting it would be a green light for every hoon and criminal in Christendom to take over the streets. He's now a Government MP, luckily with no power.

Unfortunately Police Minister Nash seems to sing from the same "law and order" song book. On becoming Minister last November, he told website Newsroom "If you sent a message out there that police will no longer chase anyone then what you will see is anyone who the police want to pull over who is perhaps drunk or driving without a licence or doing something wrong or perhaps stolen a car, they'll just run."

The Australian experience suggests this is untrue.