PUBLIC SAFETY COMES SECOND
Deputy NSW Coroner Hugh Dillon says the paradox of police pursuit is that law enforcement is prioritised over public safety. “Certainly, the key principle – that pursuit is a last resort and must only be undertaken when required by the gravity of the circumstances – appears to be interpreted with considerable elasticity and apparently ignored altogether on some occasions,” he says. These are the on-the-record findings of the Deputy NSW Coroner from the inquest into the death of 21-year-old Hamish Raj, who was suspected of speeding on a high-performance Yamaha R1 motorcycle in 2011. At just after 2am he fled from police and died shortly after in a head-on collision. He was, by all accounts, a pretty good kid who just made a bad decision.
TOO MANY INNOCENT BYSTANDERS ARE KILLED
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, almost 40 per cent of the people killed during NSW Police pursuits are simply innocent bystanders.
IT’S THE ONLY NSW GOVERNMENT POLICY THAT PLAYS RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH CERTAIN DEATH
Deputy NSW Coroner Hugh Dillon: “There is no other NSW Government policy of which I am aware that is implemented and defended in the certain knowledge that it will result in the deaths of of, and injuries to, NSW motorists and pedestrians. It is not overstating the case to describe the current practice of conducting high-speed pursuits as a form of ‘Russian roulette’.”
STOPPING PURSUITS SAVED LIVES IN QUEENSLAND
Queensland banned trivial pursuits in December 2011. Pursuits are conducted in Queensland today only if there is an imminent threat to life, or if the offender has committed a serious crime such as murder and the pursuit can be justified. The ban followed a coronial investigation into 10 pursuit-related deaths in four years in Queensland.
Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart declared the new policy a success in December 2013: “The tragedies that have happened in the past have not been evidenced since we’ve had the restrictive policy in place,” he said.
Additionally, RMIT University’s adjunct professor Peter Norden says: “Tasmania virtually eliminated deaths and injuries from police pursuits when it banned pursuits related to traffic offences and stolen cars in 1999.”
TWO-THIRDS OF HIGH-SPEED PURSUITS ARE FOR TRIVIAL OFFENCES
Of the 2086 pursuits reported by NSW Police in 2005-2006, 1411 (65 per cent) were simply commenced for traffic offences. Another 291 (13 per cent) were for stolen cars. A further 272 (13 per cent) were for evading a random breath test stop.
Road safety expert John Lambert says the fatality rate when police vehicles are involved in a crash is about 3500 times higher than average driving. If the ambient level of risk while driving were as high as that, the national death toll would be a staggering four million…
OFFENDERS ALREADY ESCAPE MORE THAN HALF THE TIME
According to the NSW Police Annual Report 2005-2006, high-speed pursuits are terminated by a supervisor 24 per cent of the time. They are discontinued by the driver 13 per cent of the time. The offender simply gets away (escapes) to police 18 per cent of the time. Add them up: the fleeing vehicle is not apprehended during a staggering 55 per cent of pursuits. Pretty good odds, if you’ve done something very wrong…
KEYSTONE COPS PURSUIT POLICY
Forget everything you’ve seen on US reality TV. All NSW Police do during a pursuit is follow, and hope the offender stops. This is why pursuits routinely stretch across a dozen suburbs and last longer than the nightly TV news they feature on. On January 14, 2001 a criminal named Trevor Holton spent an incredible 40 minutes escaping NSW Police in south-western Sydney. (It is very difficult to drive a vehicle competently at high-speed for two or three minutes, let alone 40…) Mr Holton fled to the Hume Freeway, and continued to flee at speeds up to 180km/h. The police deployed road spikes (it was the first time this tyre-shredding equipment was operationally deployed). Trevor Holton – with another criminal in the passenger’s seat and a four-year-old girl in the back – was re-enacting a real-life version of the video game Need For Speed – Hot Pursuit. (This is exactly what Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC told the NSW Supreme Court.) Mr Holton learned what to do about road spikes from that video game – in which the main method of of escape was to swerve off the road onto the grass, avoiding the spikes. During this manoeuvre, he struck Senior Constable Jim Affleck. The impact threw the police officer 80 metres, killing him instantly. Mr Holton later said in court: “‘I couldn’t swerve; I couldn’t dodge him. I was going too fast. It’s like he didn’t care what happened. To me it was like it was suicide. He could see how fast I was going. He could see I couldn’t stop. He could have avoided me so easy.” Deputy NSW Coroner Hugh Dillon wants to see a two-minute limit on pursuits in urban areas and a five-minute limit in regional areas.
NSW POLICE KEEP PURSUIT STATISTICS SECRET
The statistics on NSW Police pursuits are so bad that the NSW Police stopped publishing them after the 2005-2006 Annual Report. In that year, according to the report, 55 per cent of offenders got away, six per cent of pursuits ended in a crash, 78 per cent of pursuits were for traffic offences and fewer than 10 per cent of pursuits were for suspected criminal offences. In the Coronial Inquest into the death of Hamish Raj, Deputy Coroner Hugh Dillon proposed 17 reforms to pursuit policy (four were redacted, so we don’t know what they are). However, number 10 was for the publication of comprehensive pursuit stats: “I recommend the NSW Police publish in its annual reports … the number of pursuits … the result of those pursuits … the reasons the pursuits were commenced, and the number and type of casualties,” he said.
HARDENED CRIMINALS EXPLOIT WEAKNESSES IN PURSUIT POLICY
A serving police officer told me hardened criminals conduct a kind of guerilla warfare, out on the road. Say you’re a criminal with drugs, money and a gun in the vehicle, and three outstanding warrants for your arrest, driving a stolen car at 2am. If the police light you up, it’s common for those in the know to turn off the lights and drive on the wrong side of the road at 160km/h. In this situation, the police are obliged to discontinue the pursuit – but it is bad luck for you and the family if you turn into the criminal’s path on the way home from holidays, isn’t it?