Calls for more police pursuits misguided

Calls for the New Zealand police to resume active pursuits of fleeing car drivers would not reduce crime and would lead to multiple deaths, says the car review website

Police are currently required to avoid high speed pursuits unless the threat "outweighs the risk of harm by the pursuit". editor Clive Matthew-Wilson, who is an outspoken road safety campaigner, supports the current police pursuit policy, saying it is based on solid science and has saved multiple lives.

According to the American FBI, it’s a myth that abandoning police pursuits lets criminals get away.”

The FBI says: “research has shown that if the police refrain from chasing all offenders or terminate their pursuits, no significant increase in the number of suspects who flee would occur.”

Matthew-Wilson adds: "There’s also a myth that the police used to catch fleeing drivers by pursuing them and now they don’t. That’s simply not true. In fact, even before the police policy on pursuits was changed, 30% of police pursuits were abandoned and instead were resolved by investigation without risk to the public, vehicle occupants or police."

In 2018, there were 12 deaths and 39 serious injuries arising from pursuits. In 2019, there were eight deaths and 53 serious injuries. Four of those who died before the police pursuit policy changed were totally innocent.

Since the policy change, no innocent people have died but three drivers who fled police (without being pursued) have died.

New Zealand’s 2020 change of police pursuit policies followed a change of policy in many Australian states. 

In both countries, restrictions on pursuits are often hated by frontline police.

A 2022 study of the effects of the Queensland police pursuits policy concluded that the officers’ frustration was not because the pursuit policy didn’t work, but because the officers felt they lost personal power and control.

In 2021, New Zealand Fleeing Driver Programme manager, Acting Inspector Kelly Larsen stated: “As police officers [we are supposed] to ‘catch the bad guy’. It goes against every fibre of our being to ‘let them get away’.”

Larsen adds that, instead of letting offenders get away, “there is now a greater emphasis on subsequent investigations [of offenders in vehicles who have fled police officers].”

Larsen added: “It was obvious that what we were doing previously wasn’t working; the human cost was too high.”

In 2015, then-head of Victorian road policing, Assistant Commissioner Doug Fryer, also rejected the idea that the state’s cautious pursuit policy meant criminals ‘got away with it’.

“We would far prefer to drag an offender out of bed at six o'clock in the morning than try to drag them out of a car after a crash."

Matthew-Wilson says there’s simply no evidence that police restrictions on pursuing fleeing drivers are encouraging criminal behaviour. 

“There is no question that young dickheads are deliberately provoking the police by giving the fingers and driving off. But dickheads are going to behave like dickheads regardless of consequences.”

Offenders fleeing from police are “likely to be male…younger, and much more likely to be intoxicated or test positive for drugs”.

Matthew-Wilson says it’s pointless for the police to try and lecture young offenders on the risks of fleeing police: 

“These guys are idiots, and they’re often blotto as well. They don’t think of consequences – they get a rush of adrenaline and just take off at high speed.”

“The police now often use other options in place of pursuits: they can use surveillance cameras, helicopters, road spikes, or simply notify other police cars and quietly pursue the fleeing vehicle at a distance.”

“It’s a myth that aggressive police pursuits catch the bad guys. There are always criminals who will run and there are always a number who will escape, regardless of the police pursuit policy. However, the evidence is really clear: aggressive police pursuits frequently end in death or injury. And it’s not only the guilty people who get hurt.”