Police pursuit deaths are an exercise in the bizarre
Let me ask you a question: do you believe that pursuing offenders such as car thieves and speeding motorists in high speed car chases is worth risking the death of those offenders, their passengers or even innocent bystanders? My view is that this might be justified if such deaths were exceptional, rare occurrences. Except that these are no freak accidents.
In Victoria alone, five (5) people have died in the last two (2) months following high speed pursuits by police officers. Despite this alarming fact, many
argue that we can’t let the criminals get off easy. If these offenders aren’t pursued, every hood will start stealing cars, hardcore murderers will become more brazen in the knowledge that the cops won’t pursue them and society will generally cave in on itself.
If you’re a big fan of law and order (the political platform, not the awesome TV show) that’s your right. But have you really thought about how the pursuit policy works in practice? I don’t believe that a complete ban on pursuits is a good idea, but after hearing some of the arguments in favour of maintaining the status quo I’ve realised there’s a bit of crazy going around.
But this is just a spike! It isn’t usually a big problem.
According to a discussion paper prepared by the ACT Greens, Australian police shot and killed 92 people between 1990 and 2008. In the same period, 163 people were killed following police car pursuits. It seems to me that every time a police officer shoots and kills someone, there’s an enormous amount of media coverage and public concern (and rightly so). Yet, police car chases are connected with nearly twice as many deaths as police guns. This is an astounding statistic.
The paper also reports that deaths in connection with police pursuits have been on an upwards trend in Australia, rising from an average of 6 deaths per year in 1990 to 10 per year in 2008.
But these car thieves are hardened criminals!
The typical offender being pursued by the cops is no tuxedo-clad villain making fancy moves in his Lotus after pulling off a jewel heist. According to Victoria Police’s own statistics, almost half of the offenders engaged in Victorian police pursuits are aged under 21 (and nearly three quarters under 30). I’m going to have a wild stab in the dark and guess that a lot of these offenders are male. In other words, we have a situation where police officers are often engaging in high speed pursuits with really young men – many just boys – with limited driving experience and the willingness to engage in risk-taking behaviour that young males are famous for.
This is one of the worst ideas, ever. How anyone can honestly believe that a policy of pursuing these offenders will not lead to deaths is a Monty Python-grade absurdity. Of course the actions of someone driving at 180 km/hour with no headlights at night are “absolutely ridiculous“, Inspector Dave Ryan; that’s what tends to happen when cops chase young delinquents. Put simply, many youths are dickheads. They can’t appreciate the consequences of their actions.
Or does our society understand this and believe that a few deaths now and then are justified in the battle for law and order? I know some Australians have this view. I’m not judging that viewpoint, but I would sincerely like to know if that’s a sentiment behind this practice. This is a sensitive topic and I’m probably making you feel uncomfortable by saying this, but why finesse and re-work and constantly review the minute details of a policy under the auspices of “preventing pursuit fatalities” if there’s a dominant feeling that several deaths each year, while unfortunate, is acceptable? Why not be upfront and have that discussion?
But the police policy doesn’t even cause these accidents anyway! Um.. even though they know they might need to change their ways.
What’s blue and sounds like a broken record? Answer: a police spokesperson telling the media that their officers called off a pursuit just moments before an accident. Consider the media’s reporting of a handful of the crashes that have occurred in Victoria recently:
- On 21 January an offender and an innocent bystander both died and another innocent woman was seriously injured following a police pursuit near Morwell. The police called off the pursuit “less than a minute” or “minutes” before the offender began driving in the wrong direction and eventually caused the fatal head-on collision.
- On 10 January a passenger was killed in Dandenong after the driver of the vehicle he was travelling in had been pursued by police. Although many media outlets report that the pursuit was actually terminated before the accident, The Age reports that the time between the officers reporting to their incident controller that they had begun the pursuit and reporting the crash was just 20 seconds.
- What about the offender killed near Cobram on 17 December? The pursuit was terminated “about 1.7 to 1.9 kilometres” before the crash site. If someone was driving at, say, 120 km/hour, that would be less than one minute.
Don’t forget all the recent non-fatal crashes, such as the guy who recently drove into a funeral home in Chelsea Heights (“soon after” police called off the pursuit) and the guy who crashed into an old lady’s house in Altona North (“shortly after” the end of a pursuit). Noticing a pattern? Someone call the Guiness Book of World Records because we appear to be witnessing the greatest statistical coincidence of all time.
Whether something actually contributed to a fatality is a technical matter and something for authorities like the Coroner to decide, not us. But when we, the public, are making up our minds about whether these police pursuits are a good idea from a policy perspective, we should all maintain a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to the media reportage of these tragic events. The experience of reading media statements about the circumstances surrounding these accidents can be, at times, a little Kafkaesque.
So these accidents are always the criminals’ fault, and never anything to do with the police’s policy of pursuit. Yet funnily enough, the force has decided to formally review its policy. Which brings me to my next point…
But this has been reviewed before!
This extremely important issue involving people’s lives has, like most other things our government agencies tend to fuck up, been reviewed before. The Police Pursuit Review 2002 (*) recognised that:
a contributing factor to the impetus of pursuits has been the lack of risk assessment resulting from the embedded attitude of police officers towards this area of policing. This has essentially been derived from the complexity and conflict associated with the need to protect life and property and detect and apprehend offenders, further fuelled by the adrenalin rush which has a marked effect on the decision making process for all those involved.
Indeed. Individual cops shouldn’t be expected to make their own on-the-spot decisions about what’s more important – pursuing a car thief or safety of the public – and being placed in high pressure situations doesn’t exactly help their judgement. As a result of the 2002 review, new directives were apparently implemented with an emphasis on “safety first”. This was to ensure that police officers have more prescriptive instructions about engaging in pursuits. Well, based on recent events, they appear not to have been a resounding success.
So guess what, the policy is being reviewed again. Oh, they’ve already commented to the media that “Our preliminary finding is that our policy at this stage is quite robust”. Five people have died in two months and you call this policy “quite robust”? I hope the final report outlines your definition of “robust”, and what observations have lead you to that conclusion.
But everyone will start stealing cars!
I certainly don’t advocate a total ban on all police pursuits. Like most things in life, the answer probably won’t be found by taking a black and white, “all or nothing” approach. I’m no expert, but I question whether the police force has its policy and training right. Assuming we’re all on the same page here (ie, we genuinely want to prevent these deaths), all sorts of questions spring to mind:
- Is the policy clear enough so that there’s no ambiguity about when pursuits should be started and terminated?
- Is there appropriate risk assessment, such as appropriate thresholds for different risk categories? (For example, what if the driver appears to be very young? What is the position if police officers are unable to ascertain the approximate age of the driver, having regard to the statistical likelihood that the driver might be very young?)
- Do police need to engage in pursuit when there are other means of identifying the offending driver?
- Can we better equip police cars with technology to identify offenders?
- Do police cars need more tracking equipment to increase accountability? This article suggests that GPS trackers could assist in making police accountable for exceeding their authorised speed limit or failing to comply with an instruction from their controller. And are police adequately disciplined if they break with policy?
- Do officers have enough training?
- Does the police force need to work on broader attitudes within police culture?
I realise many of these things have probably been considered before. But given how many people are still dying, you guys need to try harder.
But you’re just a lefty idealist!
As a law-abiding citizen, I don’t want my car stolen any more than the next person. However, if you ask what scares me more, I’d say it’s the prospect of being wiped out by a frantic teenager who is driving on the wrong side of the road while being pursued by police at 170 km/hour. That’s my self-interested, pragmatic concern. Car thieves are criminals and also a danger to the public, but giving police licence to chase young drivers at dangerously high speeds is like saying we should open fire on terrorists in a crowded shopping centre.
This isn’t intended to be an attack on the individual police officers involved in these events. I think cops do a good job in difficult circumstances and I’m grateful for it. I question the broader culture within the police force, the systemic attitudes towards these kinds of offenders and whether the powers that be have got their policy and training right. So assuming the public will be given access to the final report, I’m looking forward to reading the findings. (I’m not very confident though, seeing as Commander She’ll-Be-Right decided to comment before the review is complete and just let everyone know they pretty much reckon it’s all pretty much alright as it is.)
And given the dearth of any in-depth analysis of this issue by the mainstream media, I wonder whether anyone will even care. I guess people are too busy thinking up new insults to post about Ju-LIAR on the comments page over at News.com.au over the $9.90 per week carbon tax to ask questions about the extraordinarily stupid and unnecessary waste of life occurring on their roads.
(*) Extracts of this review were republished in the Victorian Coroner’s inquest into the death of Piotr Pawel Repinski.