Police pursuits - they always happen to other people in places other than our own neighbourhoods. Don’t they?
Last week I was wombling along Mt Albert Road, one of Auckland’s old arterials. It was a day for dawdling and with windows down, aircon off, the cicada chorus deafening. They had woken us early, a sign the day would be hot and sunny.
So I drove revelling in Auckland’s sunshine and then that tranquillity vanished. A car flew past on the other side of the road. I say flew because its speed was terrifying - so fast I felt instantly that somebody was about to die. But then along came the cavalry. If I was stunned at the speed of the first car, I was equally struck by the police chase. I counted six to eight police cars - half of them unmarked. They gave chase but it seemed futile. They were well behind the car and their speed was, by comparison, civilised.
It’s one of those moments when reality confronts prejudices. I’m against police pursuits because more often than not, there are no winners. Both pursuers and the pursued are super-charged with testosterone and up to this moment they seemed mindless and often fatal road games.
But then - and here’s where belief rubs up against reality - how could any police officer stand by and let a car travel at that speed? And countering that argument how could the police send out so many cars to pursue one? Up to eight cars in pursuit of one - doesn’t that multiply by eight the danger to innocent bystanders?
I phoned Auckland Central Police station when I got back and asked why that number? They doubted my count and said standard practice involved only two. Even then pursuits were now strictly controlled they said. But I saw what I saw and the real issue here isn’t really about numbers but the necessity for pursuits. Police said there was only one in Auckland that day and it ended in Onehunga, in the direction the car was travelling.
News media later reported that a man was tasered and sprayed with pepper spray there. He had been shadowed by a police helicopter and trailed by police units for nearly half and hour as he sped through Auckland in a stolen car, going through red lights and road works alike they said.
Do pursuits make sense? Yes and no. USA Today newspaper reported last year that innocent bystanders accounted for one-third of those who are killed in high-speed police chases. ‘The deaths have several communities around the USA, wrestling with whether to restrict pursuits only to suspects in violent crimes’ said the paper.
About 360 people are killed each year in police chases, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In New Zealand last year 18 people died.
That morning my views about pursuits shifted because of that one speeding car. But so many pursuers and one helicopter - is that smart police work?
The incident removed conviction, shadowed it with doubt, which is no bad thing. Still I wonder... if the police didn’t pursue, wouldn’t that remove the incentive for drivers to speed?
And what if Police limited their chases to serious crime, not minor offences? Relied on helicopters instead of using roads? On intelligence gathering about the name and other details of the offender? Wouldn’t all that add up to a safer option?
In the end I have a question I never want answered. If one of my loved ones was hit by a driver speeding from pursuit, one that began over a minor infringement, would I blame the driver - or his pursuers?