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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller
Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

ScienceMay 30, 2018

We must stop ignoring the experts on police pursuits

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller
Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

People keep dying in police pursuits. Despite this repeated cycle of calls for change, has anything actually changed? Mark Hanna looks at the evidence

This week, as it does every couple of years or so, a police pursuit has hit the headlines because people died. Such incidents generally prompt criticism of police pursuits, sometimes including suggestions that they do more harm than good, which in turn prompts defences of the practice. There’s sometimes a review involved, and occasionally recommendations come out of that. But one thing seems to remain certain: in another year or two, the whole thing will repeat.

In 2009, the Independent Police Conduct Authority reviewed 137 pursuits that resulted in deaths and injuries over a period of five years. There were too many people dying in pursuits — 24 people in that period — and it seemed clear something had to change.

When the IPCA’s review was published, they made several recommendations, including recommending changes to Police pursuit policy:

The authority recommends that:

Police amend the pursuit policy to provide clearer guidance on the circumstances in which pursuits are justified, in particular the seriousness of offending and/or immediate threat to public safety required to justify the decision to pursue an offender who has failed to stop and attempted to evade Police. In this context, Police should consider:

  • making the risk to public safety from not stopping an offender the principal determining factor justifying decisions to commence and continue pursuit;
  • requiring that the decision to pursue is based on known facts, rather than general suspicion or speculation that a person who flees may have committed a more serious offence.

But these recommendations were not binding. Instead of accepting them, police said they would consider them in their own internal review of pursuits. The police minister at the time, Judith Collins, said in an interview on RNZ that “we accept all the recommendations from the authority including the need for police to review their pursuit policy” and “we absolutely accept the authority’s views”.

Police’s own Pursuits Policy Review was published in June 2010. This review recommended a number of small tweaks to the existing pursuits policy, but did not include any of the recommendations from the IPCA’s review. As noted later that year in the media, the IPCA’s recommendations were effectively ignored by police:

A police review of pursuit policy this year – the fourth in six years – ignored key recommendations of the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) and made only minor changes.

[IPCA chair Justice Lowell] Goddard last year called on police to more clearly proscribe when to pursue and to make “the risk to public safety from not stopping an offender” the main consideration.

The authority also recommended that the decision to pursue be based on known facts, rather than general suspicion or speculation.

Neither recommendation was taken up. Goddard yesterday told the Herald the IPCA stood by those recommendations and believed public safety issues were of sufficient importance to merit ongoing review of police pursuit policy.

She said the top two police officers had agreed to further discussion.

Police pursuit policy has undergone further revisions since then, but has still not implemented the changes recommended in 2009.

But in all this time one thing has stayed the same: people keep dying in police pursuits. Despite this repeated cycle of calls for change, has anything actually changed?

Police have recently released statistics under the Official Information Act on their pursuits for the period of 2012 to 2017. As of February 2017, Police have also included information on the number of police pursuits going back as far as January 2009 in a regular release of road policing driver offence data.

In 2007, Police conducted a review of pursuits from the period of April 2004 to May 2007. This followed Police having introduced a new database system in early 2004 that would allow them to keep better track of their pursuits.

This newly released data allows a comparison to be drawn between the 2004-2007 period leading up to the IPCA’s 2009 recommendations to improve public safety, and the years after Police’s internal review and updates to their policy. What changed after a decade?

Number of pursuits

Just over 6,000 pursuits were recorded from April 2004 to May 2007, though the true number of police pursuits in this period is likely to be significantly higher.

The report notes that the number of pursuits recorded increased by 86.5% during this review period and “Organisational efforts to improve recording practices are likely to have played a significant role in this increase”.

In comparison, there were 9,398 police pursuits in the same period a decade later, from April 2014 to May 2017.

Looking at a longer trend, the number of police pursuits had remained fairly constant for several years, up until the end of 2014. Over the next three years, the frequency of pursuits has increased from roughly 200 per month to over 300 per month.

Looking instead at the three years from April 2012 to May 2015, a period of the same length as the earlier review but mostly prior to the change in trend, there were 7,369 pursuits recorded.

Here is how the number of police pursuits per month has varied from 2009 to the end of 2017:

A 50% increase over three years is huge. It far outpaces other measures that might have contributed to this increase, such as population growth (about 1-2% per year) and the total number of kilometres driven in New Zealand (about 0-5% per year).

Though NZ Police’s pursuit policy did go through changes in October 2010 and June 2016, there was no change to the pursuit policy that coincides with this change in trend of the number of pursuits.

It’s possible this could be a result of pursuits being measured differently, as was seen in the initial reporting period. For example, this could be explained if police were previously less likely to record abandoned pursuits, so the apparent increase in total pursuits would just have been those abandoned pursuits that were already happening being recorded.

Though that explanation seems very unlikely. The rate at which pursuits were recorded as abandoned or resulting in injury have stayed fairly constant over this whole period: 

Pursuit deaths

From April 2004 to May 2007, 12 people died in police pursuits. A decade later, in the period of April 2014 to May 2017, 13 people died in police pursuits.

Our worst year for pursuit deaths was 2010, when 18 people died. In comparison, only two people died in pursuits in 2014 and 2015.

These deaths are, by their nature, rare and likely to be clustered. This has resulted in spikes and troughs in the number of pursuit deaths that can make it difficult to determine whether or not there has been any significant change.

So although pursuit deaths are definitely the events we should be most focused on preventing, they are not always a very reliable way of seeing if things have changed.

Despite this uncertainty, there is still certainly room for improvement. In 2012, Donna Chisholm looked into police pursuits and compared New Zealand with Queensland, which has a similar size population to New Zealand.

Only 11 people died in police pursuits in Queensland in the decade to 2010. Even if we had a full decade of years matching 2014’s two deaths, we would still see nearly twice as many pursuit deaths in New Zealand over that much time.

What’s next?

Every time an innocent bystander dies in a police pursuit, we all recognise it for what it is: a preventable tragedy. It’s clear, if the person fleeing from police had instead stopped, no one would have died.

But there’s a dark side to our reaction to pursuit deaths. When the person who dies in a police pursuit is the fleeing driver, or even their passenger, it’s all too common to see people expressing the sentiment that they somehow deserved it.

We have to move away from this. We don’t have the death penalty for any crime in New Zealand, certainly not for stealing a car or for speeding. We accept that dealing out death is not an appropriate response to harm. Rather, the primary role of NZ police should be to protect us all.

Yes, even people you or they don’t like.

Another staple of each cycle of criticism of pursuits is a call from police for people to stop, instead of fleeing. Police are always eager to lay the blame for pursuit deaths squarely at the feet of fleeing drivers. This isn’t entirely unfair, but it’s also not effective. It’s essentially more of a PR move, to direct any potential blame away from police.

Asking people to not flee from police will never stop it from happening, just as it’s not enough for police to simply ask everyone to please not kill or steal. Bad behaviour is inevitable, and it’s important to change what behaviour we can control in order to improve public safety.

In the case of pursuits, police cannot control the behaviour of fleeing drivers. But they can control their own behaviour, and their highest priority should always be to protect life.

Currently NZ Police and the IPCA are undertaking a joint review of pursuits, which was started in July 2017 and is due to be completed later in 2018.

Since this review started, at least 15 people have died in police pursuits. Time will tell if we will finally see real change, or if the cycle will just continue.

This post was originally published at Honest Universe

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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