Police carCoroner says police should cut chases

State Coroner Michael Barnes has told Queensland police they should not get involved in car chases with drunk drivers. His findings, after a detailed examination of 10 major chase death incidents over three years, provides a new benchmark for Australia, CLA says…even though it should include a recommendation for police to also stop chasing stolen cars.

To chase or not to chase…that is the question

Queensland State Coroner produces timely report on police car chases

When should police in Australia chase fleeing vehicles, and when is exercising mature discretion – not chasing – the better approach to saving lives?

These are precisely the questions that the Queensland State Coroner, Michael Barnes, has tried to answer in a detailed report* after 10 people died during or after police car chases in that state between 2006 and 2008.

He has recommended that Queensland police stop chasing drunk and drug-affected drivers.

“Perhaps the only thing more dangerous than a drunk driver on the road is a drunk driver being chased by the police.”

– Queensland State Coroner, Michael Barnes, quoting American researchers

Unfortunately, he has refrained from a proposing a ban on chasing drivers of stolen cars…who account for more than a quarter of all chases.

Coroner Barnes released the results of his year-long investigation in late-March 2010.

CLA congratulates him on his initiative to launch a systemic inquiry into Queensland Police Service (QPS) rules, guidelines and procedures around car chases (what police rather grandiloquently term “pursuits”).

He has set a benchmark for all Australian police forces with some clear recommendations, on top of existing Queensland policies, that would certainly cut deaths and injuries associated with police chases if implemented nationally.

The need for a national policy is obvious on the borders of the main eastern states: at Coolangatta-Tweed Heads for NSW and Queensland, the Albury-Wodonga area of the NSW-Victorian border, and in the Queanbeyan-Canberra interface between NSW and the ACT.  On that border, just two weeks before Coroner Barnes’ report, four people in the ACT died immediately after a NSW police vehicle chase when the fleeing car T-boned a car with husband, wife and infant child in it. Those three died, as did the young, male driver of the fleeing car.

With Queensland, NSW, Victoria and the ACT involved, it would appear that an agreed national policy would be better than individual versions, particularly when the ACT jurisdiction is policed by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) under contract to the ACT Government, and so already has a national outlook. There is no national policy, merely “guidelines”, which are confused and inadequate.

Bold in one direction, timid in another
In his report, Coroner Barnes has been bold enough to propose fundamental change to Queensland police car chase policy. However, he has been timid about making a critical recommendation – that police do NOT chase stolen cars – simply because the Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson thinks they should chase because, the Commissioner says, chasing acts as a deterrent.

Commissioner Atkinson’s erroneous belief is not a good enough reason, CLA believes: the value of $10-50-100,000 vehicle is not worth one or more human lives.

On average, more than two people die (and 70 are injured) every year in Queensland in car chases where police are involved. In that state, there’s about one police chase a day, with one in four resulting in a crash. In the ten years 2000 – 2009, 22 people died and 689 people were injured during or following a police pursuit in Queensland.

In the tiny ACT, with a population of just over 300,000, over the past five years the average has been one death a year. There are about two car chases a week, according to the Cameron Report of July 2007, and they last 4 minutes 13 seconds each, on average.

In NSW, police engage in car chases about 2000 times a year; since 1994, more than 60 people have died at a rate of about four a year for that state.

At one stage in Victoria, before its chase policy was revised, 24 people had died in 16 incidents across 26 months, July 2001 to September 2003. 

About every five years, on average, a state will embark on a formal inquiry to review its police car chase practices. This year, it has been Queensland’s turn.

In fairness to QPS Commissioner Atkinson and Inspector Tony Fleming, the principle project officer in charge of the car chase management area of QPS, they had not been sitting on their hands. As Coroner Barnes said in his report:

The most substantial amendments (to “police pursuit” rules/guidelines) were affected by the introduction of the Safe Driving Policy which is now in place. This policy involved a major overhaul of the previous arrangements and included a decision making framework that was compatible with an operational officer’s sequence of responses to various incidents. For the first time, the new policy included non pursuit matters and a detailed risk assessment process for other matters.

The new policy was subject to trial in the Redcliffe and Toowoomba police districts from 1 October 2006. These districts were chosen because of the variety of demographic and geographic features found in them and the support of senior command within the relevant regions. The trial was accompanied by intensive training for all officers within the districts concerned. The outcome of the trail was scientifically evaluated. A research review, focused on a literature search and policy analysis, was accompanied by an evaluation of the application of the new policy in the trial districts. The evaluation report made numerous recommendations to address perceived shortcomings.

From 1 January 2008 the new policy was implemented state wide.

Four of the deaths investigated in this suite of inquests occurred after the new policy was introduced.

Coroner Barnes highlighted that it was the decision of police to pursue that caused most of the chased drivers to flee at high speed.

In eight of the ten cases investigated, the pursued vehicle was being driven in a normal, safe manner when an attempt was made to intercept it. In each case, the driver then sped off and the police followed. A death or deaths occurred as a result of the manner in which the pursued vehicle was driven.

In the law the so called “chain of causation”[1] is delineated by looking at the factors that lead to the outcome in question and excluding a contributory factor when it is too remote from that event to be regarded as causative. There is no definitive point at which such a decision is objectively reached; the High Court has suggested a “common sense” test. [2] In another context the Act stipulates an act or omission contributes to a death if it would not have occurred at about the same time absent the act or omission.[3] In my view, applying either test, the causal link between the actions of the officers and the actions of the pursued driver is too obvious to dispute and too proximate to ignore.

Most people in the community, including CLA, support the police, and take their side when a chase has ended in a crash and highly-publicised death. Many say the police are “only doing their job”, and that the chased driver is “totally to blame”.

Coroner Barnes, while supporting police, rejects those quoted views:

Why focus on the police?
It is reasonable to ask, why focus on the police when the actions of the fleeing drivers are the primary cause of the fatalities? But as with most things, most motor vehicle crash deaths occur as a result of a combination of circumstances. While it can not be proved all fleeing drivers will necessarily resume safe driving if police discontinue pursuing, in nine of the ten deaths inquested, the fleeing driver could see and/or hear the police vehicle when the fatal crash occurred. The pursuits were precipitated by the attempted interception and all but one concluded with a fatal crash. [4]

Youths have been fleeing from police since police forces were invented. It seems unlikely anything will change that. However, I am confident that with good policies and strong leadership, police officers can be induced to give greater emphasis to safety.

…sweeping statements like; “The officers were just doing their jobs”, when based on limited knowledge of the facts, overlook that the most important job a police officer has is keeping the community safe. High speed pursuits will rarely contribute to that.

…the pursuits connected with the ten deaths investigated by these inquests were not precipitated by the driver of the pursued vehicle driving dangerously or otherwise placing members of the community in jeopardy of physical harm. Further, in none of the cases was it subsequently established that the driver had been involved in offences of violence.

Coroner Barnes then turns to examining the recently introduced policies of QPS, which were enlightened improvements on earlier police chase policies in Queensland:

For the first time the current policy stresses that a pursuit is not the only means of apprehending a suspected offender who fails to stop when directed to:-

The Service will continue to apprehend offenders who fail to be intercepted but pursuits will not be the principal means of effecting apprehension.

Before commencing a pursuit, officers are required to consider whether the law enforcement imperative is one which may justify a pursuit, and if so, whether the risks of pursuing in the prevailing circumstances reasonably justifies the proposed action.

If safety is truly supreme and if all pursuits involve a risk to safety, they should only be undertaken where the suspected offender’s behaviour poses a greater risk to safety: only offences of violence would justify a pursuit.

Coroner Barnes appears to agree with noted US researcher, Dr Geoffrey Alpert, a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Southern California:

‘When a police officer engages in a pursuit, his vehicle becomes a potentially dangerous weapon, perhaps the most dangerous weapon in the police officer’s arsenal.’– Alpert, 1987: p298

Coroner Barnes acknowledges the impact of crashes on chasing officers, who often arrive at the scene of an horrific crash within seconds of it happening, seeing maimed, dismembered and dead bodies strewn beside the road. The coroner, and CLA, appreciate that such images will stay with the officers for life, and may haunt their sleeping and waking hours.

Unlike CLA, the Coroner has not seen such police as future assets: CLA believes they are the ones who should be tasked to teach other police officers about chase driving, rather than using instructors who have no knowledge of how traumatic a chase crash can be.

It is also appropriate to acknowledge the impact of the fatalities on the officers involved in the pursuits. While their emotional suffering was obviously far less than that of the families of the deceased persons, it was nonetheless significant; in some cases severe.

Coroner Barnes makes a series of recommendations, some of which are excellent and some which fall short of the required mark, in CLA’s opinion:

Recommendation 1 – Refocus on safety
The current pursuit policy stipulates safety is paramount but then directs officers to balance the safety risks of pursuing against the benefits to the community of apprehending the suspect, whether or not those benefits involve prevention of personal injury. I recommend the policy be recast to ensure it is only the danger to the safety of others posed by not immediately apprehending the suspect that is factored into the risk assessment process.

The policy prohibits an officer who has unsuccessfully attempted to intercept a motorist from pursuing the car if the reason for seeking to intercept was for any “non-pursuit matters”. They are:-

(i)           Licence, vehicle or street checks;

(ii)           Random breath tests;

(iii)          Where the driver or occupants of a vehicle are suspected of offences based on the officer’s instinct alone and without supporting evidence;

(iv)         All simple offences (including traffic offences), except for:-

(a)        An offence against s.25: “Use of a vehicle” of the Summary Offences Act, 2005; or

(b)        Where the driver of the vehicle is reasonably suspected of driving under the influence of liquor or drug to such a degree the suspected impairment has or will create circumstances that pose an imminent, significant risk to public safety (e.g. the suspect’s ability to control the vehicle is such that if not intercepted or pursued, the danger posed to the public is as great or greater than that of engaging in a pursuit).

All other offences may be sufficient to justify a pursuit.

Coroner Barnes rightly points out that some police will completely ignore even the most well-drafted and rigorous guidelines:

It is of concern that in 2008, 87 pursuits (24% of all pursuits) were commenced for “non pursuit matters”. Five resulted in a personal injury.

Recommendation 2 – No pursuits without evidence

(This recommendation is to the effect that it should be policy that there be positive evidence that a fleeing driver has committed another, major non-vehicle offence, rather than just a suspicion of that, before a chase starts).

Recommendation 3 – Don’t pursue drunk or drug affected drivers
w of the practical difficulties involved in assessing the level of impairment of a drug or alcohol affected driver, and the likelihood that chasing them will significantly increase the likelihood of such drivers crashing, I recommend that all of these offences be included in the non pursuit category.

Recommendation 4 – Pursuing stolen cars
Despite the minimal evidence that pursuing stolen cars has an impact on the prevalence or clear up of that offence, in view of the conviction of the Commissioner of the QPS that those responsible pose a safety risk more significant than the property crime aspects of the offence, I will refrain from recommending the unlawful use of a motor vehicle become a non pursuit matter. However, I encourage the QPS to continue to review and consider the justification for the current policy.

The reasons for commencing a pursuit in these ten cases are largely reflective of the precipitating factors for which all recorded pursuits were commenced over the nine year period 2000 – 2008. According to the QPS slightly more than a quarter of the 5202 pursuits undertaken during that period were of suspected stolen vehicles; and almost one half were initiated in response to speeding, failure to stop, or suspicious behaviour. In less than 10% of the cases was the pursued vehicle being driven dangerously before the pursuit and only 3.6% were precipitated by the “commission of (a) crime”[5] (presumably other than the unlawful use and traffic offences included in the other categories).

Nevertheless, the QPS considers pursuits generate a deterrent effect that is “effective in discouraging most members of the community from attempting to avoid detection and apprehension by police.”[6] This conclusion conflicts with the evidence cited in a 2003 CMC report which found that police departments in the United States that had adopted a “no chase” or very restrictive pursuit policy did not experience any increase in the number of motorists failing to comply with a direction to stop or any increase in reported crime that could be traced to the policy.[7]

CLA disagrees with the Queensland State Coroner’s findings and recommendations in relation to chasing stolen cars. There is ample research evidence – some of it developed or collated by Prof Ross Homel at Griffith University in Brisbane in Queensland, just a few kilometres from Commissioner Atkinson’s office – that there is no (or very, very little) deterrence effect in police car chases. Coroner Barnes should require Commissioner Atkinson and Inspector Fleming to prove their assertion, rather than accepting it merely because they “consider” it to be so.

It is not so. CLA says police should not chase stolen cars.

Recommendation 5 – Abolish category 3
The current policy requires an officer who has unsuccessfully attempted an interception and who is contemplating commencing a pursuit to weigh the evidence indicating a fleeing motorist may have committed an offence with sufficient precision to determine whether it is “known” he/she has committed an offence rather than just “reasonably suspected” that he/she might have. That is unreasonable and impracticable. I recommend the distinction be abolished by the deleting of category 3 from the policy.

Recommendation 6 – Reasonable belief is sufficient
In the current policy each of the three pursuit categories refers to different offences and different levels of certainty that they may have been committed by a suspect who has failed to stop. In my view it is unreasonable and impracticable to require officers to make such fine judgments in the volatile and dynamic circumstances of an unsuccessful attempted interception. I also consider a mere suspicion is too low a threshold to justify an inherently dangerous activity such as a pursuit but that requiring an officer to know an offence has been committed is too restrictive. Accordingly I recommend  category 2 be amended to require that an officer have a “reasonable belief” that a relevant offence may have been committed.

Recommendation 7 – Weighted considerations
The policy stipulates that safety is paramount and then lists 11 other matters that should also be taken into account when determining whether to commence and/or continue a pursuit, only some of which relate to safety, with no guidance as to how they should be factored into decision making. I recommend this aspect of the policy be reviewed to ensure the intent that safety is the overriding consideration is made clearer. For example, officers should be encouraged to disregard those factors which do not add to the risk.

Recommendation 8 – Consider impact of pursuing
I recommend the policy be amended to explicitly acknowledge the likelihood that pursuing a motorist who has failed to stop is likely to result in the other car driving more dangerously and require an officer considering whether to commence or continue a pursuit to factor this into the risk assessment and the manner in which the police car is driven.

Recommendation 9 – Development of best practice guidelines.
For the reasons set out above, I recommend the QPS develop best practice guidelines that:

  • prohibit officers pursuing, other than in category 1 pursuits, unless radio contact can be maintained and the police car contains two officers or a hands free radio;
  • require a pursuit to be terminated if nominated dangerous manoeuvres such as running red lights at speed etc occur;
  • insist on compliance with school speed zones and other particularly sensitive road management requirements; and
  • deem a pursuit to continue until the police car ceases to follow or otherwise maintain contact with the other vehicle

Along with the State Coroner, CLA would like to pay tribute to the families and relatives of the people whose deaths led to these major findings. It is hoped the lessons learned will mean that the deaths of the people below contributed something positive to saving the lives of others in future.

CLA does not believe all police chases should cease, but the dangerous – to bystanders, police and fugitives – practice should be consciously chosen only for the most serious offences, where the fugitive poses significant future threat and risk to the community if allowed to escape…and cannot be caught another way.

Peter and Nicole ASH – http://www.courts.qld.gov.au/ASHPEandAshNF20091103.pdf

Matthew CULLEN –  http://www.courts.qld.gov.au/Cullen_MR20091105.pdf
Joseph DUNCAN – http://www.courts.qld.gov.au/DuncanJD20081024.pdf
Caitlin HANRICK – http://www.courts.qld.gov.au/HanrickC20090717.pdf
Samantha MASLEN-http://www.courts.qld.gov.au/OSC-Inquest-MaslenSA20080818.pdf
Niceta MADEO http://www.courts.qld.gov.au/MadeoNM20090326.pdf
Paul MOORE – http://www.courts.qld.gov.au/MoorePJ20090422.pdf
Craig SHEPHERD –  http://www.courts.qld.gov.au/Shepherd_final.pdf
Kristina TYNAN – http://www.courts.qld.gov.au/TynanKA20081127.pdf

*  Report on Police Pursuits, Queensland State Coroner:

CLA – Civil Liberties Australia
Box 7438 Fisher ACT Australia, Email: secretary [at] cla.asn.au,
Web: www.cla.asn.au
Author: Bill Rowlings, CEO, CLA, April 2010

[1] Critics of legal method have argued that this term and approach wrongly suggests a direct, linear, cause and effect relationship between events which actually happen simultaneously or as a result of different influences. However, I consider in the police pursuits such a relationship does exist between the intercept, flight, and chase.

[2] March v E & MH Strammare Pty Ltd (1991) 171 CLR 506

[3] s10AA(3)

[4] In the other case the pursuit was terminated very soon after it commenced but the fleeing driver continued to drive dangerously for about another two kilometres before crashing and killing a passenger – see the finding in relation to the death of Kristina Tynan.

[5] Statement of Inspector Fleming annexure “A”, table 9,  p117

[6] QPS report p 139

[7] CMC , Police Pursuits, 2003, p 4