The cops have got it badly wrong

What’s this, cops, and getting it wrong? Surely not. This is supposed to be a column for the TalkMotorsport news and opinion website. Where’s the motorsport angle?

A fair question, but this time I can’t really give you one (a motorsport angle); bar the fact that the carnage the cops cause via ‘pursuits’ each and every week in this country in the interests of ‘getting their man’ should be a concern for everyone. And not just those of us who love the sensation of speed; but who have learned  – often the hard way – that there is a time and  a place…..

You see, the subject I want to write about today is the current Police administration’s policy on car chases. Specifically I’d like to know who the ‘brain surgeon/rocket scientist/candidate for a Pulitzer Prize’ at the top of the chain of command is who still thinks it’s a good idea to allow his ordinary workaday officers to throw caution to the wind and chase ‘so-called’ offenders at lethal speeds through built-up areas?

Perhaps, just perhaps, if there was some sort of elite and highly trained ‘flying squad’ driving specifically built, Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawks called in for specific tasks I might give the top cop the benefit of the doubt.

But no, these are ordinary, everyday Policemen and women driving saggy, lurchy (old RWD or new FWD it doesn’t seem to matter) Holden Commodores in the name of -what? – crime-fighting, justice or simply keeping the rest of us safe?

I raise the issue here because 1) I can and 2) in doing so I might – just might – be a catalyst for change of this frankly nutty and very much both outmoded and outdated policy.

It’s not as if I like criticising individual officers simply going about their job the best way they can. The response by a couple of ordinary, everyday officers, was – after-all – what stopped Christchurch Mosque gunman Brenton Tarrant – shooting even more innocent people on March 15.

In that situation, as far as I am concerned, they needed all the freedom to move around downtown Christchurch any way, and at any speed, they bloody well liked.

Let’s get very real though. In his murderous shooting spree, the shooter killed 51 people.

In a series of articles on the Police and its pursuit policy published by the NZ Herald (and which you can read here https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12211180 ) the media organisation reported that since January 2008 Police had initiated more than 30,000 pursuits resulting in ‘hundreds’ of crashes and – this is the really sobering bit – 79 deaths.

You read that right, 79 deaths.

That was only up until the Herald’s in-depth look at the subject was published (two days before the Mosque attacks in ChCH) on March 13 this year. Since then two more otherwise innocent people going about their business have been killed by drivers fleeing Police in Christchurch alone.

That’s at least 81 dead in 11 years.

Most, to be fair were either the driver or a passenger in the car being chased…. the majority of whom could be profiled as ‘young male risk-takers.’ But in saying that I certainly hope that the cops or anyone else for that matter don’t use what I will call the ‘socially disadvantageous’ profiles of many of those who have died to somehow make their own part in the process seem less of an evil.

Earlier this year, in an article published by the Stuff news agency, journalist Michael Wright quoted Canterbury police district commander Superintendent John Price in the wake of the deaths of a 16-year-old, his 13-year-old brother and that brother’s friend after a police pursuit ended in an accident which saw the car hit a tree and burst into flames after running over a set of police spikes.

“Police always face a difficult balance in protecting the public from dangerous driving behaviour and potentially causing the offending driver to take greater risks.”

Fair enough, you might say. But here’s the thing. Way back in 2009 an Independent Police Conduct Authority report by Justice Lowell Goddard found that (as article author Michael Wright says, ‘even then’) about ‘one in four recorded pursuits ended in a crash, about one in 50 ended up in serious injury, and one in 500 ended in death.

For what?

‘Fleeing drivers tended, the report found, to be young men, few of whom had committed serious crimes…….

Incredibly, the Police’s pursuits policy has been reviewed four times since 2000 and a fifth review – this time a joint effort between the Police and the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) – came out on the very same day as the Terror Attacks.

I have attached a link to from the Radio NZ report on the subject at (https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/5770198/FLEEING-DRIVER-REVIEW-EMBARGOED-REPORT.pdf) because you really need to at the very least cast your eye over it and marvel at how it….misses the point so comprehensively and completely!

Much was made of the report in the lead-up to its release, but all I can do is shake my head and say ’you’ve got to be joking, mate,’ because, despite everything pointing to the need for a radical change in policy from the top, the report left the Police’s Fleeing Driver Policy fundamentally unchanged.

Oh, there was a bit of window dressing about using more CCTV cameras in cars and helicopters for when a chase has been ‘called off,’ plus plenty or psychobabble about some Police officers being ‘risk-tolerant,’ and others ‘risk-averse.’

However, the Judge who presided over the review for the IPCA, Judge Colin Doherty told reporters at the press conference held ahead of the report’s release that ‘the current policy could still be effective if it was properly understood!!!!!

Yet still the number of people being killed during or after Police pursuits continues to rise, statistics released to Stuff under the Official Information Act showing that 29 people were killed between 2013 and 2017 as a direct result of a pursuit.

Despite the unwritten implication that most were the authors of their own misfortune, each and every one of those who died had someone who loved them, who cared for and about them and is now living with a loss which I’m sure has hollowed out even the most hardened, cynical heart.

And that’s just for those in the vehicle being chased. What about the innocent victims, like Christchurch man Kenneth McCaul, who died as a result of injuries received when his car was T-boned by a driver running a red-light while being pursued by police?

McCaul’s death was the fifth – this year alone – as a direct result of a police pursuit in Christchurch…….

Yet the police hierarchy continue to allow their officers pretty much free rein to chase down anyone who gets a fright when they see a set of flashing ‘blues ‘n twos’ in their rear vision mirrors and goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Of course, Senior Police Management is going to wade in in support of its rank and file officers when one initiates a chase and – there’s no nice way of putting this – that officer’s decision directly results in an accident, and injury or death.

To their credit, too,  the cops no longer seem to be wheeling out the hoary old chestnut about breaking off the pursuit off minutes before the – seemingly inevitable – crash.

But seriously – 5 deaths as a result of pursuits in Christchurch this year alone. And more deaths nationwide over the past 11 years than the 51 which drew the eyes of the world to what is now known universally as ‘the Christchurch Terror Attack?

Again, I ask, for what?

As a father of a pair of headstrong examples of the breed I can vouch for the fact that male or female, teenagers by and large are a flighty, unpredictable breed, slaves to a heavy cocktail of hormones that course through their bodies and brains through the years 11-19.

From what I can see as number one son sails off into his 20s, the next decade is not much different either.

At any one time your typical teen can he ’10 ft tall and bulletproof’ and/or ‘a simpering wreck in your arms.’ Mix in a couple of mates’ shit-talking and egging them on and, well, all I can say is good luck, particularly when there is a car – stolen or otherwise – involved.

I’m used to it now (that sounds worse than it should!!) but, I know, my heart still skips a beat when I see red and blue flashing lights coming up fast behind me. And that’s either in one of my own paid-for-in-full and with current Reg and WoF cars, or a brand new, current model ‘press’ car I have managed to wheedle out of one of the local car companies.

So I can fully understand (though not exactly sympathise) how a young’un feels, particularly if he or she ‘knows’ that their number is up; be it for any one of a hundred reasons from 1) the car is stolen, to 100) they just want to look ‘staunch-as’ in front of their ‘bros.’

So what can we as people with a shared love of – indeed a ‘need’ for speed, and a passion for the art of driving quickly and effectively WITHOUT crashing and doing injury to ourselves and others, do to take try in our own small way to try and turn the current situation around.

For a start I think we all need to raise our voices about the issue. The cops have proved time and time again now that they are incapable of looking at the issue dispassionately and making meaningful change.

And seriously, why expect anything else? You wouldn’t ask a fox who lists chicken as his or her favourite meat to sit on an enquiry about sustained and long-term losses from a local hen house would you?

Of course not.

Today’s top cop is effectively a political appointment. So, my gut feeling is that you (me, we etc) have to pull on those big boy pants, make an appointment to see your local MP and voice your concerns.

Print a copy of his column out and include it with a grab bag of print outs from a quick Google search of – say – NZ Police pursuit crash deaths.

The key here is the huge human cost in terms of loss of life. Sure, some of those killed were ‘accidents waiting to happen’ and 101 other blithe (and frankly insulting) clichés.

But at its simplest and most pure, just as no one should die as a result of a delusional white supremacist with a high-power automatic rifle in this country (or any other for that matter) in 2019, as far as I am concerned, no one should die in a car accident while being chased by a cop in New Zealand in the very same year.

This isn’t the ‘Wild West.’ And our otherwise fine policemen and women should not have to lower themselves to Keystone Kop or the automotive equivalent of the silly sped-up Benny Hill-style chases just because their bosses can’t see the error of their (old, outdated) ways.

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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  1. Mark Baker

    I sheet the issue home to the Police Minister and the de-staffing of the frontline that has been going on since George Hawkins was Minister. We must NOT allow these fleeing drivers to get away. Plenty of cases here and overseas point out the foolishness of that – the (often) kids do NOT stop when the 5-0 slow down, and they are often as not then involved in a single vehicle smash with fatalities or even worse they take out someone’s family.
    Car chases are fun and exciting to them. So what is the solution? More air resource. The pursuit becomes three dimensional with a chopper involved, so cars back off once an Eagle is on the mix and just follow along, no lights or sirens. Eagle is FLIR equipped so doesn’t need to have its big spotlight on. Then it guides resources into a FULL roadblock (not just spikes) and voila! Fleeing driver nicked, no person harmed (usually).
    The next bit is contentious. Penalties have to become real. Angry Andy’s not going to like this, but to get on top of the crime there are two penalties that stand out – automatic permanent forfeiture of the car (if it’s owned and not stolen); and automatic jail sentence. Three months in the Big House will help these guys work out that fleeing is not worth it.

    Mark Baker