Police pursuits – should we ban them?

Saturday, March 20, 10pm: A 23-year-old man named Justin Williams killed a family of three – and himself – while fleeing from police in Canberra. Mr Williams drove through a red light at high speed and collided with the family’s car, ripping it in half. Police claim they terminated the pursuit moments before impact.
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It’s not the first time an event like this has occurred.

Frances Rose is the mother of a 21-year-old daughter, Clea, who was killed in the aftermath of a police pursuit in 2005. She has told reporters on several occasions her view, which is that we no longer condone the death penalty for heinous offences like murder yet we endorse it in a de facto way – often sanctioning also the deaths of innocent bystanders – by continuing to allow police pursuits.

Clea Rose, who was not a party to the pursuit that ended her life, was killed by a 14-year-old boy driving a Holden Commodore. He entered a bus interchange at about 100km/h during the pursuit, striking and killing Ms Rose. Witnesses said the impact threw her 20 metres down the road.
In NSW, six people have died during police pursuits in the past two years – pursuits generally initiated after traffic offences. The fleeing driver is generally a young man, often with no license, often with a significant - or at least extensive - criminal record.

Police claim pursuits are necessary. When she was police commissioner in Victoria, Christine Nixon told Melbourne’s The Age newspaper the community would not support police giving a "green light" to fleeing suspects. Nixon’s comments were made after three people died when Victorian Police resumed a terminated pursuit without permission. The officers involved declined to testify before the coroner due to possible self-incrimination.

The NSW police's position on pursuits is also clear. Former deputy NSW police commissioner Dave Madden told The Sydney Morning Herald: “I can't and won't take away from my men the right to decide whether or not to pursue an offender. They are on the spot ... it's their gut feeling."

The Queensland coroner is on the brink of handing down its findings about police pursuits. As an interim measure, the Qld police will not pursue drivers thought to have committed traffic offences or those in stolen cars … and it appears the criminals are still as under control there as they were before the interim ban.

Is the greater good served by police pursuits? It’s doubtful any of the parties to the events of Saturday March 20, or Clea Rose's death, would say ‘yes’.

There were 2086 police pursuits in NSW during 2005/2006, the latest year in which the NSW Police’s Annual Report made pursuit statistics public. That’s 40 each week on average; more than six a day. Six per cent of these chaotic, unpredictable events ends in a crash, and only nine per cent are initiated because the driver is suspected of a criminal offence.

The overwhelming majority – 78 per cent – kick off because of a suspected traffic offence or stolen vehicle.

What happens to those who flee? Thirty-seven per cent get away with it because the police terminate the pursuit or the pursuing driver discontinues the pursuit. In 26 per cent of cases, the fleeing driver has second thoughts and gives up, in six per cent of cases there’s a crash, and in 18 per cent of pursuits the fleeing driver out-runs the cops. In 13 per cent of pursuits the driver stops, but the occupants of the offending vehicle then abscond on foot.

For criminals in possession of drugs, contraband or for those who are wanted for serious offences, statistically it seems like a significantly better deal to flee and maybe – probably – get away than to stop and subsequently be arrested over a far more serious criminal matter.

Cars pose more of a risk to police officers themselves than guns, at least in Australia. In the 20th Century, cars killed 99 NSW Police officers. Gunshot wounds killed 49. It’s not just the police who are at risk, however. Between 1990 and mid-2003, pursuits killed 50 people in NSW. Only one of those was a police officer, Constable Jim Affleck, who was killed by the driver of a stolen 4WD.

Ironically, Constable Affleck’s tragic death occurred during the first post-trial deployment of tyre-puncturing road spikes, of which the NSW Highway Patrol has hundreds of boxed sets on the books. (There’s a bridge named after him on the Hume Freeway, south of Sydney. Hell of a way to get your name on a piece of civil engineering.) Road spikes were deployed 41 times in NSW in 2005/6, and engaged by offenders 31 of those times.

Eight of those killed in pursuits from 1990-2003 were innocent bystanders. The remaining 41 were on the run, mostly chased after simple traffic offences, often young drivers who make a single bad decision under extreme pressure.

A senior officer reported on ABC radio that ‘Gold’-classified NSW Police licence holders (the top qualification) receive just five hours’ of pursuit-specific practical training at the Goulburn (NSW) Police Academy. Once passed, that’s it. There is no ongoing qualification benchmark test. (Yet, incomprehensibly, every officer must pass an annual handgun refresher.)

Police pursuit protocols are spelled out in the NSW Police Force’s Safe Driving Policy, a purportedly secret document, which I have read. The decision to pursue or not may be made by the officer at the wheel, but pursuits may also be terminated by senior police or, perversely, civilian radio operators with little or no operational experience. They are automatically terminated if radio contact is lost, or if the fleeing vehicle drives too dangerously.

The Safe Driving Policy means police play the game of pursuit not only inadequately trained, but with one arm tied behind their backs. Officers are not allowed to duck down parallel streets in an attempt to get ahead of their targets. They are not allowed to draw alongside or pass them.

They are prevented from forming convoys or rolling roadblocks. They are definitely not allowed to nudge or ram them with their vehicles like you see on the US reality TV show, C.O.P.S. Police must, essentially, sit behind those who flee and wait until they either pull over, run out of fuel or crash. All they can do is follow with the lights and sirens activated, basically.

Pursuits can therefore stretch over hellishly long times and distances. A few years ago, a disqualified teenager in a Mitsubishi Mirage led police on a nine-suburb evening romp across Sydney’s west. He took to the wrong side of the Hume Highway traveling faster than 100 km/h with headlights off (it was night-time), then rammed a police car, saw all four tyres punctured by road spikes, and continued to drive on the bare rims in a shower of sparks before fleeing on foot. Police say the pursuit started when they saw the vehicle driving dangerously, which seems a reasonable allegation in the circumstances.

What’s not reasonable, however, is the kind of policy that increases the danger to the community by preventing two trained officers in a high-powered V8 Falcon or Commodore from apprehending one unlicenced nong in a Mirage, and allowing outrageously dangerous driving to extend across suburbs.

Outside the vehicle, police are allowed to use reasonable – even if that means deadly – force against offenders if the situation warrants it. For example, an offender brandishing a shotgun in public may be reasonably shot to prevent injury to innocent civilians or officers. It is a breach of the Safe Driving Policy, however, for officers to perform a similar act with a police car, for example if a fleeing driver is speeding towards a busy crossroad with no indication he will slow down.

It may not be a breach of the law to take such action as forcing the fleeing driver to crash – effectively using the vehicle to carry out the officer’s sworn duty to protect the public by employing reasonable force – but it would be a breach of the Safe Driving Policy. One officer I spoke to said taking such action might be an interesting test case, were it not for the fact that police are not immune to being charged with criminal offences including dangerous driving. (Police are allowed to disregard traffic laws. Dangerous driving is not a traffic offence, however. It's an offence under the Crimes Act.) This could be a real possibility if the officer’s actions were deemed to constitute ‘unreasonable’ force under the law. He told me he would certainly be unwilling to risk such a decision, and understood why several commanders deploy only vehicles that are not certified for pursuit within their commands.

The alternative to pursuit is, in the case of traffic matters, obviously, for police to take the a note of the offending vehicle’s number plate down, and follow up by knocking on the door later – especially in these days of in-car Highway Patrol video. This, you’d think, would make real sense for minor traffic offences. But officers I spoke to said the legislation for such follow ups is “notoriously weak”. Many offenders escape punishment by claiming afterwards they don’t know which of their 20 mates ‘borrowed’ the car while they were asleep upstairs, conveniently, at the time of the alleged offence, and the keys were lying around downstairs. There is basically zero penalty for flatly refusing to divulge the driver’s details, and justice isn’t served.

Recidivist offenders and hardened criminals, many with outstanding warrants, use the Safe Driving Policy to their advantage. Pursuits are automatically terminated, it says, when the risk exceeds the need to apprehend the offender immediately. Officers I have interviewed say crooks in the know get the headlights off at night and drive on the wrong side at more than double the speed limit, or drive through red lights at dangerous speeds, forcing police to terminate the pursuit. They also head for known police radio blackspots.

The Safe Driving Policy is very thin on pursuit-terminating specifics Instead, it says: “No criticism will be levelled at any officer who decides to terminate a pursuit.” Some officers apparently think this means: give up any time, but get it wrong and we’ll nail you to the wall if it helps avert a PR fiasco.

What do you think? Do the police need more power to conduct more heavy-handed US-style pursuits, or do we need to stop pursuits, except following known criminal offences?