Police: 'No perfect solution' to pursuits
The deaths of four young men in a police pursuit in Auckland have brought the number killed this way to 10, more than three times last year's figure. Is it time for such chases to end? Shane Cowlishaw reports.
It is a wet and gloomy night on the Wellington Motorway. Conditions are treacherous, but that means little to one motorist as he launches past the police car at high speed.
Senior Sergeant Doug McGuire is waiting and quickly accelerates as he switches on his lights, and radios to the communication centre that he is in pursuit.
After a few seconds he has caught up, but it is clear that the driver won't be stopping to see what the police want.
An 18-year veteran, Mr McGuire knows there is little to be gained from continuing the chase and pulls back, hoping units further up the road will be able to catch the driver.
"You want to get home at the end of the day safe, and you want everyone else to as well," he says.
Scenarios like this play out more than 2000 times a year on New Zealand roads. While only a fraction of the roughly 3.5 million annual traffic stops end in a pursuit and almost half of those are abandoned, 10 people have lost their lives after police chases this year.
In 2012, there were only three deaths, but the year before that the number was 14 and the overall record does not look good when compared to other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Early last Saturday morning, four young men sped down a Manukau street in South Auckland in a green Honda Accord and past a police vehicle at a speed well in excess of the 60kmh limit.
As they were pursued, they powered away on to the Southwestern Motorway, with the driver topping 160kmh.
The pursuit was abandoned, but as the car approached an off-ramp in Mangere, another police car picked it up.
This was, according to police, called off within seconds, and the Eagle helicopter was summoned, but it was too late.
The car smashed into a parked, empty Toyota Hilux, and two of the men, aged 18 and 19, died instantly. The remaining pair were taken to hospital in critical condition, but neither survived.
It was a grim result and came less than 24 hours after the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) released a report into the deaths of another three people following a Gisborne pursuit last year.
Dylan James Kingi, 28, died when the car he was driving drunk crashed on July 14. Two of his passengers, Peter John Bunyan and Holly Kay Gunn, also died at the scene, while Claire Sophie Badger, 25, managed to crawl from the car after it hit a power pole.
The IPCA, which refused to be interviewed for this article, found that the pursuing officer was right to begin the chase, but should have abandoned it earlier after reaching 127kmh through residential streets. Despite his high speeds, the officer could not keep up with Mr Kingi's Mitsubishi and stopped the chase when he lost sight of it.
Since it gained its own investigation team in 2007, the authority has reported on 41 serious police pursuits, with another 15 still on the books.
In a 2009 report issued after analysing 137 chases, it found that only 31 were started because of known criminal activity.
Justice Lowell Goddard, then chairwoman of the authority, noted a need for much clearer rules about what should warrant starting a police pursuit and that the decision should be based on known facts, rather than speculation.
"Pursuits can begin over relatively minor offending or general suspicion, and end in serious injury or death," she said.
"In such cases, the benefits from pursuing and stopping an offender do not appear to outweigh the risks."
So what has changed since 2009?
Generally, not a lot. Police have tweaked their fleeing driver policy - which has had six major overhauls since 1996 - and placed a greater responsibility on the communications centre to assess whether a chase should be abandoned.
Yet drivers, often young, are still dying and the debate continues about whether chases should be abandoned for good.
From a police point of view, it is a dilemma. Their job is to ensure the streets are safe for the public, and ignoring people who flout the law would essentially hand the roads over to them.
It is wildly unfair, they believe, that the media spotlight and accountability should fall on the police, when it is the drivers who simply need to stop.
On the other side, critics cannot see the benefit in chasing a car for reasons such as a broken brake light.
They believe the inevitable drop in deaths if pursuits were stopped would be worth any negative effects, and point to overseas research showing little increase in people fleeing after pursuits were restricted.
ACROSS THE Tasman, debate about the issue has been just as fierce. Rules differ greatly between states, with some having introduced heavy penalties for fleeing from police, while others have almost barred pursuits.
Little more than a year ago, Queensland decided to follow Tasmania and reduce the criteria allowing the police to engage in a pursuit.
One of the most vocal supporters is Victoria's road safety expert, John Lambert, who is adamant that the choice is a simple one: Fewer chases equal fewer deaths.
His claims are backed by a wealth of data and research and he has publicly called for the policies in Queensland and Tasmania to be adopted nationally.
"My argument is we got rid of the death penalty quite a while ago . . . but here we have police initiating action that is likely to result in injury or death over stolen vehicles whose average value is about $7000."
He says the per-kilometre fatality rate during police pursuits is 23,000 times higher than normal. He also estimates that the average cost per crash is $66,000, while 20 per cent of those killed are innocent bystanders.
Since Tasmania introduced its policy in 1999, only one person has died after being pursued for a serious crime, a figure that proves the merit of reducing chases, he says.
The argument is nothing new to the New Zealand police, who say they have been closely monitoring the changes in Queensland and in other jurisdictions around the world.
But the idea of following suit is met with polite, yet firm, rejections.
National road policing manager superintendent Carey Griffiths admits there would be an obvious reduction in deaths from pursuits if they were restricted further, but emphasises that the impact on road safety in general is unclear.
"We're damned if we do and damned if we don't."
On the face of it, stopping police from chasing seems attractive, but it is doubtful the public would accept those who are charged with enforcing the law turning a blind eye.
"On one hand, we hear the voices of the public saying we want to be safe on the road and we don't want to be struck by the police, but we also hear very loudly the voices of the public saying we don't want to give the streets up to these people either.
"We don't want our streets populated by dangerous, reckless and drunken drivers who can do so with impunity."
Even though police call off more pursuits than ever before and continue to improve their policy, Mr Griffiths says there is often a public perception that the person was chased until they died.
He finds this unfair, as often the driver was speeding recklessly and, if the officers had not given chase and the person had gone on to kill somebody, the officer would have been criticised.
A shift to put the onus and responsibility on to the driver who refuses to stop would help, but in the end there is no solution that can provide the perfect answer, Mr Griffiths says.
"Nothing is the best . . . there are a range of ways of doing it, as we see overseas. No-one has solved it. There's no magic bullet.
"A really key point from my perspective is that all these occur because a driver decides not to stop. Ultimately, the decision is theirs. We don't want to lose sight of that."
FORMER transport safety minister Harry Duynhoven believes he has the answer.
It involves taking away, permanently, something he is convinced fleeing drivers would be very reluctant to lose - their cars.
Mr Duynhoven, now mayor of New Plymouth, wants a system where a vehicle that flees from police is impounded and then confiscated by the courts.
The process is technically available as an option to judges now, but is rarely used.
Police chases would be restricted to reduce deaths, but the thought of losing their car, or their friend's or mother's car, would make people think twice.
"Drivers would know that if they flee from a police car with its lights and sirens going, they are going to lose their vehicle, and their passengers will also know that.
"So even if the driver has a rush of blood to the head and says, 'I'm going to outrun this copper', the passengers would go, 'Hang on a minute, mate, you're going to lose your car'."
It is appalling for the police when a chase ends in tragedy, and this would give them "another tool in the toolbox", he says.
"This is not about the nuisance of noise or wheelies or a few black rubber strips on the road or a bit of smoke. This is about people getting killed."
When asked why he did not make the change while he was in government, Mr Duynhoven says he raised it with officials and believes preliminary work has already been done.
Police Minister Anne Tolley scoffs at this, saying anything is possible as long as it is workable, sensible and effective.
"It never ceases to amaze me when people who have had nine years in government and could have done it, but didn't - and he was associate minister of transport."
In Tasmania, the no-chase policy is backed by tough laws against fleeing from police, usually involving jail time, and Mrs Tolley admits the example could be worth a closer look.
However, she is a staunch supporter of police and agrees with a comment made by predecessor Judith Collins that drivers who flee should be treated as potential killers.
The responsibility always has to come back to those who refuse to stop and it is doubtful New Zealand wants its police to turn a blind eye to those behaving poorly, she says.
"They [police] are just as upset by the tragedies, as they have to face it. They're the ones there dealing with the mangled bodies of these young people and have to front up to the grieving families.
"It's difficult for the police, because their responsibility is to keep the community safe, so we might still have people driving fast, drunk, without licences in unregistered, unwarranted cars and causing either their deaths or other people's deaths, whether or not police are pursuing."
Perhaps the most impassioned supporter of pursuits is the Police Association, which believes the current policy is too restrictive.
Vice-president Stuart Mills says many pursuits have to be abandoned, meaning a lot of work trying to track down the driver, as well as determining why they fled in the first place.
Introducing a no-chase policy would tip the scales of the respect the police require from the public to do their job.
"I know the Tasmanian police have a similar policy and they have to sit and watch people do burnouts in front of them because they can't pursue them.
"What happens if there's an aggravated robbery of a bank and we have a no-pursuit policy?
"Very clearly we're opening up the avenues to crime being committed.
"We've got to make sure that people know if they are committing an offence, and a serious offence, then police will take steps to apprehend them."
CATCH UP WITH OFFENDERS LATER, GRIEVING MUM TELLS POLICE
Her son died almost five years ago, but for Sandra Kotsifakis it still feels like yesterday.
In July 2008, 18-year-old Peter Joseph Kotsifakis - known as P J - died after he crashed into the side of a Palmerston North house following a high-speed pursuit. He had taken his ex-girlfriend's car and driven off from a petrol station without paying.
A 2009 coroner's finding recommended police should add to their pursuit communication procedure the phrase: "Can suspect be apprehended safely later?", to remind officers on the ground that a chase might not be necessary.
Mrs Kotsifakis says she called police that night because she was worried about her son. She believes that if the information she had given them had been passed on to the pursuing officer, he would have realised a chase was not necessary.
While she has great respect for police and the job they do, continuing to chase young drivers is not the answer, she says. Instead, banning pursuits for minor infringements, as in Queensland, is the best way forward.
"I don't think, no matter what the circumstances are, they should be chasing. I mean, at the end of the day, the car is going to stop and they can get them then.
"They're not going to go that far. I mean, you don't get them racing from one town to another, how many are like that?"
Her son was not found to have alcohol or drugs in his system and police, with the information she had given, could have tracked him down quickly at home.
SUCCESSFUL OR A SHAM? AUSSIES DIFFER ON CHASE RULES
Australia has greatly varying police pursuit policies between states.
In Queensland, a rule was introduced in December 2011 barring police from high-speed chases unless lives were threatened or the offender was high risk, but in Victoria a new criminal charge was introduced in December after a comprehensive review of pursuits, with stiff penalties for those who flee from the police.
Queensland police say that, in 2011, 23 people were injured after pursuits while, in the first six months after the law was changed, only two people were hurt, suffering minor injuries.
The move has been controversial, with some officers claiming criminals are taunting them when they know they cannot be chased.
In one incident, reported in the Courier-Mail, an 18-year-old car thief phoned the Policelink hotline and emergency number 000 to skite that officers had to back off because the chase was becoming dangerous.
Police Commissioner Ian Stewart defended the policy, using his own experience of telling a family of a death in a police chase.
"I never want another one of our officers to have to go through that awful task. Officers can pursue if there is a significant public risk in letting the offenders go. This is rarely the case."
But Queensland Police Union president Ian Leavers says the ban has been a failure, leading to an increase in violent crime that he believes is directly linked to officers' inability to give chase.
"What we have seen is a marked increase in criminals doing as they want. They will drive past the police. They will wave at the police and show a complete disregard for the law. It is lawlessness as we speak.
"When offenders in stolen cars drive into police stations and attempt to entice police to pursue, I think we've gone too far."
With the onus now on the police to explain themselves, rather than the offenders, the union is advising its members not to pursue under any circumstances.
"You get Mr Smith driving down the road. He's doing 74kmh in a 60kmh zone. He'll pull over and get his traffic ticket and cop his medicine, whereas someone in a stolen car, a criminal, goes past at 160kmh and we basically wave goodbye and say good luck to you, because if we try to intercept, our people go through hell."
In 2006, 13-year-old Caitlin Hanrick died while crossing the road when she was hit by a car being pursued by police.
The car, which had no brakes, reached 120kmh in a 60kmh zone, and hit Caitlin as she crossed the road on a green pedestrian signal near her school.
She was one of 10 people who died in police chases and whose deaths were investigated by the state's chief coroner.
Recommendations from the inquests contributed to the 2011 law change.
Victoria's pursuit policy is much closer aligned to New Zealand's - the decision on whether to initiate a chase is left up to the officers on the scene.
However, it also has a robust set of criteria by which the pursuit must be constantly evaluated, including regular contact with the communication centre.
In December, the state introduced a new "chase law", with drivers who spark pursuits facing up to three years in jail, hefty fines and long periods of disqualification.
Victoria's assistant commissioner of road policing Bob Hill says it is too early to tell whether the stern penalties have changed drivers' behaviour, but more robust police procedures have resulted in a large increase in the number of pursuits being called off after the initial engagement.
There was little support in Victoria for adopting Queensland's policy, and it is important that individual officers have the ability to choose whether to pursue, he says.
"We do not provide a prescriptive yes or no type thing for our members about how you can pursue for what offence.
"It's all based on the principle of: What harm is to be prevented here? What is the need for the pursuit? If that need is outweighed by the risk, then we don't pursue.
"We're not going to say to our members you can pursue someone for an armed robbery but you can't pursue them for running a red light."
Two people were killed in a fiery crash in January 2012 after a fleeing driver smashed into another vehicle after driving the wrong way down a freeway.
The 42-year-old driver was spotted speeding through Morwel town centre about 9am, with the police giving chase.
Although police pulled out of the pursuit after deeming it too dangerous, the driver hit another car carrying a male driver and a female passenger soon after.
Both drivers died instantly and the passenger suffered serious injuries.
The deaths were the fifth in a short period in Victoria, increasing calls for tougher penalties and bans on police pursuits.
BY THE NUMBERS
Last year, 1118 out of 2312 chases were abandoned by police.
Deaths resulting from police pursuits
The Dominion Post