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