A law change could tackle the problem of fatal police chases

Early in the year, a police pursuit ended in a fatal crash that took the lives of two teenage boys in Christchurch. The vehicle being pursued was stolen by its occupants, and when they failed to stop for the responding authorities police spikes were set-up to get the vehicle to halt.

A month earlier, also in Christchurch, another police car chase resulted in the deaths of a pregnant mother and her partner who were fleeing from responding officers. The driver, Dennis Tunnicliffe, had failed to stop at a police checkpoint and was therefore pursued – only to careen and crash into a power pole.

These two serious incidents occurring within a month of each other sparked a nationwide discussion on the nature of police car chases, with opinions mixed if whether it is the fault of the police vehicle for chasing after the victims or if it is the fault of the victims for failing to stop for responding police.

An indisputable fact is that when motorists flee police vehicles they tend to drive recklessly, endangering not only themselves but innocent people in the vicinity also. Drivers who do not stop for police are therefore a risk to the greater society, and their behaviour needs to be addressed.

NZ First list-MP Darroch Ball

This is precisely what New Zealand First MP Darroch Ball is aiming to do with his recent Member’s Bill, the Land Transport (Fleeing Drivers) Amendment Bill. The legislation creates four new offences that will penalize people who even attempt to evade pursuing police officers.

As per the Bill’s digest, those four new sanctions include:  fleeing from police, fleeing from the police while driving recklessly
or dangerously, fleeing from police while driving recklessly or dangerously and causing injury, and fleeing from police while driving recklessly or dangerously and causing death.

The first imposes a penalty immediately if a driver flees the police,  violators will face mandatory community service. If the fleeing driver does so ‘in a dangerous or reckless manner’, they face an immediate prison sentence of between six and twenty-four months.

Additionally, there will be increased penalties to drivers who flee and cause injury, as well as those who flee and cause deaths. The corresponding sanction for the latter offense will be on par with that of manslaughter, which is a maximum life sentence imprisonment.

Having different tiers of penalties will help deter reckless behaviour, that almost certainly causes injuries or deaths. Under current laws, there is no difference in penalty between fleeing a police vehicle and doing so recklessly – which is why drivers who evade responding police do so recklessly since they will face the same penalty anyway.

Adding to that, police tend to abandon chases when the motorists being pursued drive recklessly, in fear of causing damage or at worse, deaths. Doing so allows the persons of interest to go scot-free, which then encourages this behaviour.

(YOU CAN VIEW THE BILL BY CLICKING HERE)

According to the bill’s explanatory note: “The number of incidents abandoned by police have also increased from 20% in 2009 to over 55% in 2018. Fleeing drivers are choosing to deliberately drive dangerously in order for police to abandon and, if caught, suffer very few consequences.”

Darroch Ball notes that under the status quo, “fleeing drivers [now] understand that all they have to do is immediately begin to drive dangerously – wrong side of the road, excessive speed, putting the public in danger – and the pursuing police officer must abandon the pursuit.”

The bill also aims to rectify an amendment to the Land Transport Act introduced by the previous National-led government in 2017, coincidentally by its current party leader Simon Bridges. Ball has been critical of that amendment, saying that the penalty it introduced was “a slap on the wrist”.

By introducing an amendment of his own, NZ First’s law and order spokesperson hopes to bring an end to the reckless pursuits that have caused the deaths of those young boys from Christchurch as well as prevent the “police blame game” that occurs when a police pursuit ends in fatalities.

The list-MP based in Palmerston North introduced the bill as a response to the rampant police blaming in the aftermath of the fatal Christchurch police chase. In an op-ed for stuff.co.nz he wrote: “We need to stop focusing on police pursuits as being the cause of the problem and instead look at the individuals whose actions create the need for the pursuit in the first place.”

It is a good sign that he has the right idea on what is wrong under our current system, which means that his bill will address the issues that cause this problem. The hope now is that the bill be drawn from the ballot, and that it will gain support from his colleagues in Government.

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