Time for a re­think on po­lice pur­suit: are ‘flee­ing driv­ers’ all crim­i­nals?

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

So far, 18 New Zealan­ders have died in the course of po­lice pur­suits this year.

Among the po­lice and the pub­lic at large, the as­sump­tion seems wide­spread that the peo­ple in­volved must have been flee­ing be­cause they had some­thing crim­i­nal to hide.

Po­lice Min­is­ter Ju­dith Collins, for ex­am­ple, has said she is not go­ing to or­der po­lice to stand by on the side of the road, and wave crim­i­nals good­bye as they sped away.

How­ever, that as­sump­tion of crim­i­nal­ity may well be un­founded.

Me­dia in­quiries to the min­is­ter’s of­fice re­vealed that de­spite the fact po­lice carry out an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of each of the 18 deaths, nei­ther the po­lice nor the min­is­ter’s of­fice have any in­for­ma­tion as to what per­cent­age of the peo­ple killed had been en­gaged in crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity be­fore­hand, or were car­ry­ing ev­i­dence of crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity in their cars.

At worst, there was one case where the car con­tained a sawn-off shot­gun and am­mu­ni­tion, but with no in­di­ca­tion whether the gun was for of­fen­sive or de­fen­sive pur­poses.

In other words, the po­lice and the pub­lic be­ing put at risk have no re­li­able ba­sis for es­ti­mat­ing whether these deadly pur­suits are worth the risk in the sense of de­ter­ring crime, or catch­ing crim­i­nals.

One al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tion is that the peo­ple who died were run­ning from po­lice be­cause they were ei­ther scared or pumped up with bravado and be­ing egged on by other pas­sen­gers in the car.

What we do know is that such chases are prov­ing fa­tal on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Dur­ing these pur­suits the pub­lic, the po­lice and the of­fend­ers are placed at risk of death and se­ri­ous in­jury – and for rea­sons that may amount to lit­tle more than a fear of get­ting in trou­ble with their par­ents, or los­ing face in front of their mates.

Could the po­lice carry out such pur­suits only long enough to es­tab­lish the reg­is­tra­tion num­ber of the car?

That may be a gen­uine op­tion – given that again me­dia in­quiries es­tab­lished that stolen cars were in­volved in only 30 per cent of sub­se­quently fa­tal pur­suit crashes.

Po­lice, in other words, can fairly re­li­ably as­sume that the of­fend­ers in­volved are driv­ing their own car, or the fam­ily car – and thus could wait in the drive­way to ar­rest the cul­prits when they re­turn home.

In other coun­tries, and some Aus­tralian states, the po­lice are ex­pected to re­frain from chas­ing of­fend­ers at high speed through city streets, un­less there is a very se­ri­ous rea­son to do so.

As part of its ed­u­ca­tion cam­paign on this point, Tas­ma­nia has cre­ated a spe­cific of­fence called evad­ing po­lice.

It car­ries se­ri­ous penal­ties that in­clude clamp­ing the cars in­volved for a min­i­mum pe­riod of 28 days. Technology is also cre­at­ing fresh op­tions. A de­vice called star chase would en­able our po­lice to laser tag the flee­ing car, track it from po­lice head­quar­ters in real time, and later pick up the of­fender, safely.

None of these op­tions ap­pear to be on the agenda in New Zealand.

De­spite the record num­bers of deaths re­sult­ing from the cur­rent pur­suit pol­icy, Ms Collins con­tin­ues to cling to pro­ce­dures that are killing peo­ple un­nec­es­sar­ily, and putting the com­mu­nity at risk along the way.

It seems the of­fend­ers may not be the only ones in­volved in this process act­ing out of mind­less bravado.

Gor­don Camp­bell is an ex­pe­ri­enced po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist and colum­nist who has writ­ten for The Lis­tener and Scoop.

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