President's Column: Challenges of a fleeing driver review

NZPA - Chris Cahill | Sun July 1st, 2018

By October, we will have the results of an extensive Police and Independent Police Conduct Authority joint review of fleeing driver events, and the Association has been assured of an opportunity to review and provide feedback on the draft report.

The joint review is designed to produce a better understanding of behaviour in the fleeing driver/pursuit environment – an area of growing concern for lawmakers, first responders and the wider public.

Police and the IPCA have spent the past year collating raw data – a process to which many of you will have contributed.

The data consists of all fleeing driver events in the year to June 30, 2018, together with a case-study analysis of a random 10 per cent of fleeing driver events in the 18 months to June 30, 2018.

The challenges of a such a review should not be underestimated.

This is one of the most complex examples of competing policy goals. Officers are expected to use reasonable powers to enforce the law and they have to balance that with the twin expectation of keeping the community safe from those who break the law.

We already know that the data collected will include evidence that the vast majority of pursuits are called off, abandoned or last little more than seconds. However, the data will also remind us of far too many tragic losses of life and serious, life-altering injuries. In the period under review, 18 people, most of them young, have been killed in fleeing driver incidents.

When I relay those statistics to my counterparts in other police associations, they are astounded, and rightly so. Some say no pursuit is worth a life; others, such as the Police Association of Victoria, argue that their no-pursuit policy means “hoons have been given the green light to get away with their offending behaviour while thumbing their noses at police”.

As I have said in relation to the use of fatal force, there are dreadful consequences for the families of the victims, and there is also potential psychological harm, if not physical harm as well, for officers involved in fatal fleeing driver incidents. Added to that, months, and in the worst cases years, can go by before officers know the result of inquiries into what may have been a split-second decision to engage in a pursuit or risk a suspected offender escaping immediate apprehension.

In anticipation of the IPCA/Police report, the association is gathering research from around the world, and in particular Australia, to make sure we are as informed as possible about policy options that best protect our members. We believe that informed decisions are those grounded in solid data.

It is fair to ask why all the focus is on police behaviour when it is the refusal of the driver to stop that triggers the pursuit and the ensuing driving that too often ends tragically. That is why we refer to “fleeing driver incidents” rather than “police pursuits”.

Because a fleeing driver has already demonstrated disdain for the law, it is our responsibility to develop policy that guides officers in how to balance law enforcement and community safety.

The unfortunate truth of this matter, as the Queensland State Coroner so succinctly put it in his report on that state’s pursuit policy, is “youths have been fleeing from police since police forces were invented”.

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