Their vehicle is most dangerous weapon available to police
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Their vehicle is most dangerous weapon available to police

Afew weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from the Speaker of the ACT Legislative Assembly inviting me to comment on a community discussion paper on police car chases. As it happened I was in Queensland at the time and I had some trouble in sending a reply as neither my laptop nor my iPad was working properly. Hence, this delayed and much more public response.

The discussion paper itself is a relatively brief document, only about 12 pages, but it deserves close scrutiny and careful consideration of its recommendations. The paper reviews the well-known cases in the ACT in which seven people were killed in the past seven years in connection with police pursuits, and then examines the Australia-wide context in which there have been 163 similar deaths in the past 19 years.

An examination of the criminal behaviour that sparked the chases resulting in the 163 deaths found that most often it was relatively minor offences. (For example, 74 cases related to theft, 65 arose from traffic infringements, while only nine cases were related to violent crime.) This analysis raises the questions of whether or not it is sound policy to risk the lives of police, innocent bystanders or the offenders themselves, when the overwhelming majority of them were only minor offenders.

During the same 19-year period, a total of 92 people were shot and killed by police in the whole of Australia. That is just over half of the number killed in police car chases, and it shows the police vehicle is the most dangerous weapon available to law enforcement. Furthermore, over this period the average number of people killed in police chases has increased from about six per year in 1990 to about 10 per year in 2008.

Other evidence in the paper is also persuasive. For example, a study conducted in Western Australia in 1990 found that over a six-month period a total of 346 police pursuits were examined and not one was found to be associated with serious offences such as murder, kidnap or armed robbery. Similarly, a 1993 study in New Zealand found that only 3 per cent of people involved in pursuits were charged with serious violent crime.

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The central proposal of the discussion paper, made by the ACT Greens, is for the ACT to conduct a 24-month trial of a new policy in which police pursuits are permitted only when the occupants of a car are suspected of involvement with serious offences, such as murder, rape, armed robbery or kidnap. This new policy would specifically prevent police chases if the occupants are suspected of traffic infringements, driving an unregistered vehicle, driving without a licence, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

For the latter group of less serious offences, the police would be expected to alert other police cars, which might be able to intercept the vehicle. Another possibility, not considered in the discussion paper, is for all police cars to have an inexpensive digital camera to take pictures of the occupants of suspect vehicles. This could assist identification, and may also have some deterrent effect.

In my view this is a sensible and modest proposal which could be made a little more stringent without reducing its impact. As the notion of suspicion is purely subjective, I think it would be preferable if police were required to specify the reasons for their suspicion, so it would not be sufficient in a coronial inquiry, for example, to say they had suspicions. They would be required to state the basis of the suspicions.

One paragraph in the discussion paper contains hints that James-Bond-like technology may be the way of the future. Devices are described that could disrupt a vehicle's ignition system in newer vehicles or use immobilisers in older vehicles, or make use of laser-guided compressed air launchers to attach GPS tracking devices to fleeing vehicles. If these technological developments do occur it would be welcome news, but for the present more mundane techniques must be used. I have heard on the grapevine that a relatively large number of people have expressed their opposition to the proposal, but I find it hard to imagine the basis for their views.

For anyone who has read this discussion paper, and thought about the subject, to oppose this modest proposal must surely mean that they would prefer a community which is less safe and in which police and others are more likely to be killed or injured than would be the case if the proposal were implemented.

It should be noted that new policies on police pursuits have been in place for some years in Queensland and Tasmania and no negative consequences have been found. The same may be expected in the ACT.

At a broader level than the issue of whether or not police policy with regard to pursuits should be modified, it is my personal opinion that the ACT Assembly should not hesitate to say how the police should do their job. The ACT is a self-governing jurisdiction and, even though self-government was not achieved until 10 years after the Australian Federal Police was created, that does not mean that ACT residents have no voice on how they should be policed.

What I think most of us would like is a professional police force composed of officers sufficiently experienced and mature to be proud of not over-reacting to minor incidents.

Their job inevitably involves danger to themselves, and as far as possible that danger should not be increased by their own actions.

  • David Biles is a Canberra-based consultant criminologist.
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