IN HOT PURSUIT OF PUBLIC SAFETY
Queensland Police’s risk-assessment policy for high-speed pursuits has reduced fatalities, but critics argue it has given criminals a green light to do as they please, writes Greg Stolz
HERE’S not much thrill in the chase for Queensland police these days.
A strict police pursuit policy brought in three years ago after a spate of fatal crashes – and branded by the police union as a “no pursuit” policy – means Queensland officers are increasingly unlikely to
feature in a World’s Wildest
Police Chases episode. Police Commissioner Ian Stewart has made clear his zero tolerance for what he regards as dangerous pursuits.
Last week, controversial police officer Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley and colleague Senior Constable Barry Wellington were stood down over a Gold Coast pursuit in which they allegedly opened fire on a vehicle containing an accused Bonnie and Clydestyle crime couple police claim were wanted for offences including the violent tomahawk bashing and robbery of a taxi driver.
The pursuit reached speeds of up to 160km/h and, during the chase, several police cars were rammed, Hurley was run over and weapons including a tomahawk were allegedly thrown from the speeding getaway car. Hurley and Wellington were suspended after an internal investigation into allegations the pursuit was unauthorised, dangerous and that officers used excessive force by discharging their service weapons. But the disciplinary action has outraged the police union, fellow officers and
members of the public who believe the pursuit was justified given the seriousness of the crimes the fugitives had allegedly committed.
“It’s an absolute disgrace,’’ union president Ian Leavers said after Hurley and Wellington were stood down. “We were in a position where we could’ve had a murdered police officer and the same police which would’ve been in the front row at the funeral are now the ones taking disciplinary action …”
The pursuit policy, Leavers said, was “a green light for criminals in Queensland to do as they want, when they want, and the only people who stop are law-abiding people”.
I ntroduced in 2012, the policy states that pursuits are “inherently dangerous” and should only be undertaken if those fleeing are an “imminent threat to life” or been involved in or threatened a murder or other serious offence.
Officers are warned they cannot launch a pursuit on “instinct alone or suspicion only” and are required to conduct a detailed risk assessment.
The policy also outlines the advantages of using the police helicopter to track offenders and reduce the risks of a pursuit. A helicopter was used in last week’s Gold Coast pursuit. Police radio audio also reveals officers were directed to abandon the chase.
In May last year, another experienced Gold Coast officer was stood down over a pursuit crash that left the young woman they were chasing in an induced coma. Two elderly people in a second car were also injured.
The suspension was lifted in November but a QPS spokesman says the outcome of the internal investigation into the incident was confidential.
Road safety expert John Lambert, who has advised Victorian police on police pursuit policy, says Tasmania and Queensland have the nation’s toughest pursuit rules.
But he believes some Queensland police may have “regressed to a degree” under the former Newman government’s law and order push and embarked on some unnecessary pursuits.
L ambert, a forensic engineer who prepares expert reports for the likes of WorkCover and major law firms, says pursuits are “horrendously dangerous” with a crash rate 3500 times above average crash rates and a fatality rate 30,000 times higher than average.
“The police are constantly pushing the road safety message yet they are engaging in a practice which is very likely to cause crashes, injuries and deaths,’’ he says.
But Lambert, who has campaigned for a total ban on pursuits of stolen cars or those involved in traffic offences, says he believes the pursuit involving Hurley and Wellington appeared to be justified.
“Police still have to be aware of the risks though, especially when the research shows that 80 per cent of drivers involved in a pursuit are impaired by alcohol or drugs or both.’’
Then-Queensland Coroner Michael Barnes, in a 2010 report into 10 pursuitrelated fatalities that led to the current QPS pursuit policy, recommended police no longer chase drunk or drug-affected drivers because of the increased danger.
That recommendation has not been adopted, nor has a ban on pursuits of stolen cars which was called for by the family of Caitlin Hanrick, the 13-year-old killed outside Redcliffe State High in 2006 after being hit by a stolen car driven by a drunk and drug-addled young woman. In his report, Barnes noted that 25 per cent of pursuits ended in crashes. An Australian Institute of Criminology report found that 218 people died in 185 pursuit-related crashes between 2000 and 2011 and that almost half of the victims were innocent non-offenders. Only six of the drivers involved in the pursuits had committed a serious violent offence.
However, the AIC found that the number of pursuits in Australia has fallen steadily in Queensland since 2006, when a new “evade police” law was introduced to reduce pursuits. The law carries a mandatory $5500 fine, two-year driving ban and possible jail time.
According to the AIC, pursuits in Queensland fell from 630 in 2006 to 286 in 2011. QPS figures show there have been 45 pursuits so far this financial year, compared with 2603 evade police incidents.
A fter last week’s pursuit on the Gold Coast, Police Commissioner Ian Stewart (far left) tweeted: “Not 1 death in a police pursuit in QLD in (last) five years. Our policy based on risk assessment by officers involved. It works!’’
The QPS, however, has not ruled out further changes to the pursuit policy.
“We will await the outcome of this investigation (into the Gold Coast pursuit) before we make any final decision,’’ a spokeswoman says.
It’s an absolute disgrace