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Please let’s not descend to ‘fault’ and ‘feral’ in the debate on police pursuits

A rush to assign blame for deaths in police chases can only distort the important discussion around a pursuit policy that should put human life first, writes Toby Manhire.

The debate around police pursuits is one of those that can be relied upon to coax out the uglier side of our natures. A chase in Palmerston North yesterday ended in a crash which left a 15-year-old boy dead, a 12-year-old girl dead, and the life of a 15-year-old girl hanging in the balance. It left families bereaved. It will have left a police officer emotionally shattered.

And this afternoon it left the NZ Herald leading its site with this:

Andrew Dickens is a first-rate broadcaster. He presumably did not write the headline that dances like a graveyard troll above his opinion piece. In it, he doesn’t use the word “fault” but the slightly less repugnant “responsibility”.

He does, however, feed an ugly streak in our natures, the pitchfork urge for retribution, the medieval string-em-up response to law breaking.

He does choose to call the dead 15-year-old “feral”, a word eagerly promoted by the headline writer, and one which, deliberate or not, harks back to the Whaleoil school of vilifying the dead.

He does choose to write these words about the child who was travelling in the back seat: “Why was a 12-year-old gallivanting about town with a 15-year-old on bail in a stolen car? Again – where were the parents? Today it turns out her brother died five years ago in a similar police chase in New South Wales. It seem to run in the family.”

What a thing to say about a 12-year-old at any time, let alone less than 24 hours after she died.

However tempting it might be to assign fault, blame, responsibility, whatever, the critical question is instead whether deaths in police pursuits might be prevented. Yes, the best way for them to be avoided is for people not to steal cars and not to drive like idiots, to pull over on request, but if the decision to chase, or indeed the policy that underpins the decision to chase, is likelier to end in death – of the driver, the police officer, of unconnected others – then it needs to change.

And though it shouldn’t need saying, this is absolutely not in the cause of ascribing “fault” to the police, it’s simply working on the assumption – crazy, I know – that the priority should be people not dying.

Six years ago, Donna Chisholm wrote an important piece on police pursuits for Metro, comparing the policy and practice in New Zealand with that of Australian states.

She noted then that:

New Zealand police chase between 2000 and 2500 vehicles every year – three times as many as in Victoria, which has a population of a million more, and seven times as many as Queensland, with a roughly similar population.

In Queensland, 11 people died in pursuits in the decade to 2010. In New Zealand in just five years, from 2007-2011, 33 people died. And yet Queensland moved this year to all but ban pursuits because of the unacceptable risk to public safety.

Even before its new policy came in, Queensland abandoned around 73 per cent of chases compared to New Zealand’s 48 per cent.

Tasmania, which banned pursuits in 1999, says it has not resulted in any increase in road or other crimes, despite claims that “anarchy” would ensue.

She looked, too, at the concept of “red misting”, in which officers, as told to a British inquiry in 2001, “told of a ‘red mist of rage and excitement’ overcoming some drivers chasing a fleeing vehicle.”

Australian campaigner road safety campaigner John Lambert, quoted by Chisholm, characterises police chases as “basically the most hazardous activity you could possibly undertake on roads legally … It’s a total contradiction for police to be engaging in them when they’re supposed to be improving road safety. The fatality rate for pursuits is 3500 times higher than for normal travel.”

He adds: “The death penalty disappeared a long time ago and you can’t be generating a situation where you’re likely to cause someone who’s committed a traffic offence in a stolen vehicle to die – or even worse, an innocent bystander.”

As Chisholm has observed, barely anything has changed since she wrote that piece. The appearance by police national manager for road policing Superintendent Steve Greally on Morning Report earlier today, in which he defended the current policy as “the best it could possibly be”, offered little hope that they are open to change today.

Bizarrely, Dickens swerves late in his piece to say that he doesn’t believe the police should have undertaken the chase at all. “Was this chase necessary? Well, an investigation will reveal that. But in my opinion, it was not.”

I’d much rather have read him exploring that question, rather than a fault-assigning “feral” diatribe. But that wouldn’t make much of a headline.


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