14 Mar 2019

Police pursuits sit-rep: Facts and rules ahead of joint IPCA and Police report

6:38 pm on 14 March 2019

Police and the IPCA are tomorrow releasing their first joint report into pursuits. Here's a short history of pursuits, police policy, and crash trends.

Police lights

Photo: 123RF

A dramatic chase in central Christchurch in January ended with the car bursting into flames and officers rushing to help three teens trapped inside.

Last year, there was the case of 12-year-old Meadow James, who died along with the 15-year-old driver in a pursuit crash in Palmerston North.

In 2017, there was the death of 15-year-old Morrocco Tai, who crashed in Auckland less than a minute after police began to pursue. He had been in another police chase just two weeks before.

There are many others. Often in recent years the drivers have been children. Some have said they got mixed up in the wrong crowd, or felt they had nothing to lose.

A disproportionate number of fleeing drivers - 54 percent - are Māori, though police rejected that had anything to do with bias.

The chases can shut down sections of motorway, are a threat to bystanders and property, and of course are a danger to police themselves.

This is not all the fault of police, though. As a 2010 police review into their policy says: "Police need to uphold the law and apprehend drivers who fail to stop ... this has the potential to create situations that are more dangerous than the original offence."

They have said they sometimes do not even have time to decide to chase before their quarry begins to flee recklessly.

It's a high-stress situation. As recently as October, police were shot at during a chase, and officers haveoften been injured by fleeing vehicles.

The pursued can end up dead, too, even when police stop their pursuit.

The number of fleeing driver pursuits has also increased steadily since 2014, after remaining fairly even for the previous five years, but the number of pursuits abandoned has also risen considerably.

Just under 60 percent of police pursuits were called off last year, up from just over 55 percent the year before and far above the not-quite 30 percent of 10 years ago.

Pursuit reviews

This review is the first joint effort by IPCA and police into the problem, but they have each looked into it separately several times.

There have been seven IPCA reviews into the topic in the past 20 years.

"It is the Authority's view that rarely, if ever, would driving on a public road at a speed of two-and-a-half times the posted speed limit not constitute dangerous driving," it wrote in its report into a 2017 fatal pursuit crash in Auckland.

The latest IPCA review looked at more than 280 chases, 81 of which ended in death, with a focus on analysing common themes from previous pursuits.

The authority recommended police change their pursuits policy in 2009, and has reiterated those recommendations since then, most recently in 2016 in a report on the death of Calum Meyer after a police pursuit in Whanganui.

The crashes themselves are also often investigated by both organisations, sometimes taking more than a year to complete. They have been sometimes in favour of police, sometimes against.

Police stance

For police however, who reviewed their policy four times in six years from 2004, this is now their first full review in nine years.

Their most recent policy review in June 2010 said there was insufficient evidence for either a ban on pursuits or a change to only pursue those who had committed an offence.

Police generic

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Following the Christchurch crash in January, Police Association president Chris Cahill said the report would not provide a silver bullet to the complicated issue, but he was keen to see what the IPCA thought should change.

He also said involving specialist police drivers and vehicles could help, however reports since then of high turnover and a low experience pool in road policing could make that difficult.

Police also have stated a plan to reduce overall road deaths by 5 percent every year.

Government response

In May last year, Police Minister Stuart Nash said he did not believe police should be told to stop pursuits in all incidents.

"From an operational perspective, we've got to let the police use their discretion on this one. And I believe they do it and I believe they do it well. And if we allow people to just drive off when they commit a traffic offence, then I don't think that is keeping our community safe."

Current police pursuits policy:

    In pursuits:

  • Lead driver decides when to pursue and cannot be forced to pursue or continue pursuit against their judgement
  • They must signal to the driver using siren and lights
  • Police use TENR, a decision-making process, to quickly assess whether to pursue, weighing harm posed by the fleeing driver against the threat the driver poses and the need to stop them
  • No more than two vehicles may pursue "unless tactically appropriate"
  • The pursuing vehicles maintain communication with the pursuit controller at base, who can order them to abandon; call in aerial surveillance; coordinate vehicles and tactical options (e.g. traffic control, dog unit, vehicle stops, spike strips)
  • Police generic

    A pursuit controller keeps in touch with all vehicles involved and can call off the chase. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

    The decision to abandon pursuit should be made:

  • If the risks of pursuing outweighs the need to stop the driver
  • If the driver's identity is known, they aren't a danger to the public and can be picked up later
  • If safe pursuit is in sufficient doubt
  • - This decision can be made by either of the pursuit vehicles, the field supervisor or the pursuit controller. Aircraft can continue to follow unless specifically asked not to.

    The pursuit can begin again:

  • With permission from the pursuit controller, who is satisfied risks are mitigated and the situation has changed

Read the full police pursuits policy in force from October 2017:

Read the full 2010 police review laying out pursuits policy:

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