Police pursuits have been a matter of public debate for some years and the issue has recently been reignited after the tragic death of a 17-month-old girl in Sydney’s west when a police chase ended up going through the toddler’s back fence and killing her. As a result of this, there have been calls for tougher police pursuit legislation and also for clarity regarding police guidelines in respect of pursuits, especially regarding when they should be commenced and ceased.
What does the law say about police pursuits?
There are provisions in the law to make being involved in a police pursuit a crime for members of the public, but nothing that deals with police officers who conduct high-risk pursuits without good reason.
Under Section 51B of the Crimes Act, also known as Skye’s Law, it is an offence for a driver to engage in a pursuit if they should reasonably have known that police were following and wanted them to stop the vehicle. If once they are aware that police are pursuing them a driver doesn’t stop, but continues to drive at a reckless speed or in a dangerous manner, they can potentially be convicted of ‘police pursuit’ and face serious penalties.
These laws were brought in after 19-month-old toddler Skye Sassine was tragically killed during a police pursuit in 2009. The laws are intended to deter drivers from evading police and triggering dangerous pursuits. There have been a number of other tragedies arising from risky pursuits and figures show that around a third of all the casualties arising from pursuits are innocent bystanders.
The maximum penalty for engaging in a police pursuit is imprisonment for three years for a first offence and five years for a second or subsequent offence.
According to the NSW Judicial Commission, 42% of first-time offenders in the Local Court between October 2010 and September 2014 were sent to prison. There were a total of 432 cases.
The figure was 100% for first-time offenders in the District Court between March 2010 and June 2014, where there were 4 cases in total.
Under what circumstances can police conduct a high-risk pursuit?
The police force in NSW has a number of internal guidelines surrounding high speed pursuits and the criteria that members need to take into consideration when thinking about whether to proceed with a high speed chase or call it off. Unfortunately police refuse to make the details of the guidelines public, which has meant that there is little avenue for public debate or discussion surrounding them.
NSW Police refused to publish the specifics of the apparently nine situations in which police can stop a pursuit due to operational reasons. Although NSW Police has a safe driving policy, it has come under criticism over the years and attempts to gain access to it have been unsuccessful with police refusing to release the documents under freedom of information laws, or when released, providing heavily edited versions.
Many of the high-risk police pursuits that take place are for minor offences and traffic violations. Such pursuits have already been prohibited in Tasmania and Queensland. In these states, high speed pursuits by police are only allowed if there is information that a serious crime has been committed. Those rules were implemented on that basis that the risks inherent in high speed police pursuits outweigh the benefits, except in the case of serious crimes.
The many casualties arising from police pursuits are at least partly due to the fact that the majority of pursuits involve young, less experienced drivers who are often impaired by drugs or alcohol at the time. This greatly increases the likelihood of accident and injury.
A recent coronial review into police pursuit guidelines made a number of recommendations, including that police pursuits be limited to a maximum of two minutes in duration. And amendments to the current policy are expected to be released soon.
Should police pursuit guidelines be made public?
It is believed that the existing police guidelines in NSW do not contain specific information as to exactly when a police pursuit should be started or stopped, but rather contain a list of criteria that officers are required to consider when deciding whether to continue with a pursuit or not.
Based upon that information, some have argued that police pursuit guidelines should be made available for public discussion and debate – which might improve the current approach.
Those who are in favour of public release argue that releasing and debating a list of criteria is unlikely to affect police operations. Rather, they argue, it would increase transparency and promote confidence, while at the same time enhancing accountability in the event that the guidelines are breached. All of this might ultimately reduce the number of tragedies arising from dangerous pursuits.
Those against the release have argued that if the policies were made public, it would teach people how to cause a pursuit to be stopped, and thereby allow them to get away with crime. The contrary argument is that police pursuits are overwhelmingly unplanned and spontaneous, and it is highly unlikely that people would spend time reading and memorising police pursuit guidelines, and, even if they did, it would not lead to them being able to ‘control’ pursuits in practice.
Those against release have also argued that such public disclosure might affect police operational procedures and thereby further endanger lives. They maintain that the existing guidelines have already been the subject of extensive consultation and refinement by professionals with relevant experience in the field, and that releasing them to the public will achieve little if anything.
What are your thoughts?