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Why high-speed police pursuits have to stop

Every year there are more than 2000 police pursuits in NSW, Australia’s most populous state – more than 40 each week; more than six a day. They account for one per cent of the road toll. One in twelve of these chaotic, unpredictable events ends in a crash, but only one in eight happens because the driver is suspected of a criminal offence.

What happens to those who run? Around 70 per cent get away with it. Around 1000 pursuits annually are terminated by either the driver or a controller higher up the Police chain of command, around 400 drivers escape outright, and around 300 vehicles stop, but the offenders abscond on foot. Of the few who are caught, provided they don’t kill or injure someone, the worst charge that can be made under NSW Law is that of ‘dangerous driving’. Perversely, it is not specifically an offence to flee from police – certainly it is not a criminal act to do so.

For criminals in possession of drugs, contraband or for those who are wanted for serious offences, it seems like a significantly better deal to flee and risk a driving charge than to stop and be arrested over a far more serious criminal matter.

More perversely, perhaps, 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, this happened during the first post-trial deployment of purportedly risk-limiting road spikes, of which the NSW Highway Patrol has hundreds of boxed sets on the books.

Eight killed in these pursuits 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.

This report is not a character assassination of Highway Patrol officers. A senior officer recently 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. 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 in flight and wait until they either pull over 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. In a far from isolated example, 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.

Interestingly, 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 machete close to members of the public may be reasonably shot to prevent injury to innocent civilians or officers. It is a breach of the Safe Driving Policy 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.

Interestingly, 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 culpable driving. 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 situation, and understood why several commanders deploy only vehicles that are not certified for pursuit within their commands.

The alternative to pursuit is, 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 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 fifty mates ‘borrowed’ the car while they were asleep 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 hard criminals 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 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, forcing police to terminate the pursuit. They also head for known police radio blackspots.

Interestingly, 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: get it wrong and we’ll nail you to the wall if it helps avert a PR fiasco.

Last Word – from a serving copper

“We shouldn’t forget that serial killer Ted Bundy was arrested after a short pursuit in a stolen car. The arresting officer thought he was just another car thief. Don’t forget that a fleeing car may contain anyone or anything. Imagine if police abandoned pursuit of the bastards who kidnapped and brutalized Anita Cobby after they committed a minor traffic offence and then fled. No-one can know why someone is fleeing – and all those dumped bodies, stolen goods, drug shipments and wanted persons don’t get from place to place on foot. Traffic stops are always a step into the unknown.

“Many of your comments are valid, but will no doubt be seen as criticism of the cops who risk their necks to carry out their sworn duty. Some of the crooks are unbelievably bad guys with absolutely no regard for the welfare of anyone else. They will risk everything to escape even a traffic ticket. Their flight is very often disproportionate to the incident, like being arrested for shoplifting and then resisting arrest with an axe. They aren’t all teenage idiots. Many are seasoned crooks who just don’t give a shit about the rest of society.” — name withheld by request.

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