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It’s time for all police pursuits to be stopped, or at least seriously limited

All Canberra residents who watch television or read newspapers must know about the horrendous traffic accident that happened in Kambah on the evening of Friday, September 4. The details of this accident became the lead story on the first page of this newspaper for the following two days. The driver of the car being pursued by a police car (at least for a short time) was killed at the crash site, and his heavily-pregnant girl friend was injured, as were the occupants of two other cars which were struck by the offender's car.

Very few Canberra residents will know that just over two days later a police pursuit in Darwin resulted in another fatality. In this case it was a passenger in a stolen car which was being pursued who died. The driver, who fled the scene, was later arrested and charged with a number of offences. The early, unofficial report of this incident suggests that four other people were injured, one of whom was in a critical condition.

There are a number of similar facts in these two cases. People who witnessed the crashes in both locations suggested that the car being pursued was travelling close to 200km/h. Also in both cases, the car being pursed ran a red light which resulted in other vehicles becoming involved. Finally, in both cases the police have claimed (no doubt accurately) that the police pursuits were terminated before the crashes occurred, and in both cases further investigations are being undertaken by senior police officers who will no doubt be required later to provide evidence to a coroner's court.  

It is not suggested that police pursuits "caused" the crashes and therefore the fatalities, but it seems reasonable to assume that they "contributed" to the tragic outcomes. If that is so, the question must be asked: Can any changes be made to police pursuit policy which would result in significantly fewer fatalities and injuries occurring in these situations?

A major study by the Australian Institute of Criminology, published in 2013, provides much relevant background information. This study, undertaken with the co-operation of all Australian police forces, examined all motor vehicle pursuit-related fatalities that occurred over the 12-year period, 2000 to 2011. During this period there were 185 fatal pursuit-related vehicle crashes resulting in 218 deaths. On average there were 15 crashes and 18 deaths per year.

Of the 218 deaths, 110 were of alleged offenders who were the drivers of the cars that had been pursued and a further 26 were the passengers in these cars. The remaining 82 deaths were of innocent parties; 37 were passengers in other vehicles and 45 were bystanders or other road users, including six police officers who were killed in the pursuits. The study also found that fatal pursuits most commonly involved males under the age of 25 and in almost 90 per cent of the cases the alleged offenders had consumed alcohol or other drugs prior to the incident.

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It is a pity that this study did not include injuries, which are more than twice as common as fatalities, but that omission is understandable as it would have made the study far more complex and demanding. As it stands, this study is the most comprehensive in Australia and it illustrates the value of an independent organisation being able to provide practical advice to all elements of the criminal justice systems in the states and territories. 

I know there are many people who argue that the police must have the right to pursue alleged offenders or the whole basis of law enforcement would collapse. If the police could  not take any action when they came across drunk drivers or people breaking speed limits, for example, it is argued that respect for the law and police authority would be lost, and the society as a whole would be the loser. This popular argument must be undermined by the fact that no negative consequences flowed from the decision in 1999 by Tasmania to ban all police pursuits, or from a similar decision in Queensland in 2012.

In this day and age all police forces are trained to respond to offenders in a much more professional and nuanced manner than was the case in the past. The way forward may be found in a statement made by the Victoria Police on July 13 of this year. Assistant Commissioner Robert Hill announced that officers would only be allowed to chase fleeing drivers when there was a clear threat to public safety or when a serious offence had been committed. 

The new policy was the result of a series of recommendations from a coronial inquest into deaths linked to high-speed pursuits in Victoria in 2013. Under the new policy police will not be allowed to pursue vehicles for offences such as minor traffic offences, and they must use other methods to locate offenders if there is no immediate risk to public safety from the alleged offenders.

The Assistant Commissioner said that there had been 1700 pursuits in Victoria in 2014 and he made the point that, "There are very few occasions when a fleeing driver stops after he has made a conscious decision to flee police. Pursuing them only exacerbates their behaviour. They drive at high speeds, drive more erratically, and create more risks on our roads. That is what we are trying to eliminate".

The NSW Police earlier this year released a statement indicating that a new policy on police pursuits was soon to be announced, but the full details are not yet available to the public. It has been stated, however, that any pursuit in NSW now "requires the approval from the duty operations inspector before commencement". This is a major development which should significantly reduce pursuits. Hopefully, we are at the start of a new era in which there will be far fewer pursuit-related deaths than occurred in the past.

David Biles is a semi-retired Canberra criminologist. He was a member of major inquiries into the police in South Australia and Victoria in the 1970s and  '80s  and was the chair of the ACT Police Consultative Board from 2000 until 2008.

biles@netspeed.com.au