Why NSW Police Pursuits Are Out of Control
Police pursuits are out of control in NSW. The current state of play is a disgrace.
THE INNOCENT BYSTANDER
On Thursday the 8th of January this year, a 17-month-old girl named Talia Tauaifaga was innocently playing in her backyard in Sydney’s inner West. A police chase went horribly wrong. A stolen Audi and a police car crashed through the boundary fence. Talia was killed. A shocking tragedy, but it really shouldn’t be that surprising. Almost 40 per cent of the people killed in NSW police pursuits are simply innocent bystanders. That’s according to the Australian Institute of Criminology. It’s hard to imagine a more innocent bystander than young Talia. This has to stop.
THE DEAD OFFENDER
Four years ago, 21-year-old Hamish Raj - a pretty good kid, by all accounts - was suspected of speeding on a motorcycle in southern Sydney. Police activated their lights and sirens. It’s impossible to know what went through young Mr Raj’s mind in that moment - and he’s certainly no longer in a position to tell us. He fled, and during that pursuit, at speeds up to 150km/h he clipped the median strip, which de-stabilised the motorcycle. He veered into oncoming traffic, had a head-on crash with a car and he died. Was he in the wrong? Absolutely. Did he deserve to die as a result of allegedly speeding? No - you don’t get death for serial murder in this country. Was justice served by this terrible outcome? Absolutely not. At the very least, his penalty and the one his family will always endure, was grossly disproportionate. And, yeah, he was in part the architect of his own demise. But it could have been prevented.
Police pursuits are the stuff of the Keystone Cops here in NSW, only deadly serious. I’m not criticising the cops out there with their hands on the wheel. I’m talking about the systemic failures of policymakers and senior officers who’ve made police pursuits such a fiasco.
THE NSW CORONER
A coronial investigation followed Mr Raj’s death. Deputy State Coroner Hugh Dillon delivered his findings on the 7th of April 2014. They included a scathing indictment of police pursuit procedures and practices plus a call for a radical overhaul of NSW Police pursuit policy. Mr Dillon made 17 recommendations in total. Perversely, four of those recommendations are officially redacted and are not available in the public domain.
Nine months later, almost to the day, none of those recommendations had been implemented and a baby girl lay dead in her own backyard. Hell of a way to start the new year.
When you think about police pursuits, you need to distance yourself from Hollywood. Pursuits are not flights of fancy. They’re not consequence-free action and thrills for entertainment. This is the real world.
Name me one other job where it’s acceptable to engage in behaviour that’s statistically 3500 times more likely to kill someone, compared with ‘ordinary’ driving - because that’s exactly the risk elevation during a pursuit. That’s according to up-to-date research from road safety expert John Lambert.
The cops in NSW have such a bad record on pursuits that they stopped publishing pursuit statistics in their annual reports eight years ago. So, the most recent publicly available statistics on pursuits are found on pages 102 and 103 of the 2005-2006 NSW Police Annual Report.
Deputy Coroner Hugh Dillon actually recommended publishing the pursuit stats in one of his 17 recommendations (number 10). Good luck with that.
THE ODDS OF GETTING AWAY
According to the cops, there were 2086 pursuits in the ‘05-’06 fiscal year - which was pretty typical, based on previous annual reports. Seven hundred and seventy-four of those pursuits just got called off - either by the officer driving the cop car, or by a supervisor back at the base. That’s 37 per cent of offenders just getting away, right there. Plus, almost one time in five - 372 pursuits, or 18 per cent - the cops simply lost the bad guys.
About one in every 17 pursuits ends in a crash. It certainly did on the 8th of January this year. So: Six per cent of pursuits end in a crash, and 55 per cent of the time the bad guys just get away. Does anyone even think that’s halfway acceptable? Except if you’re a criminal. Then the odds are actually quite favourable.
According to the NSW Police Safe Driving Policy, pursuits should be a “last resort”. Nobody wants to see Hannibal Lecter driving off into the sunset, but why exactly are the cops doing all this pursuing in the first place? Forty pursuits a week, on average.
WHY THE COPS PURSUE IN NSW
More than 1400 of those 2086 pursuits were initiated for traffic offences, and almost 300 more for people who just didn’t stop for a random breath test. Is it just me, or does it seem especially retarded to pursue someone who’s drunk? Why not just take the number plate and, you know, arrest them in their driveway, in half an hour? We’re not talking about criminal masterminds here. Make failure to stop for RBT five years in the Big House. That’d bring those 300 RBT evaders right down. Sentence the first one, and word would get around, I’m sure.
So, that’s 78 per cent of pursuits right there - traffic offences and drunk dickheads. Just under 300 pursuits were initiated for stolen cars, and only 191 - that’s fewer than 10 per cent - for suspected criminal offences. Yep - fewer than one pursuit in 10 is for alleged criminal offences. But a hell of a lot for U-turns at traffic lights or whatever.
The police safe driving policy forces the cops to pursue with one hand tied behind their backs. Make that both hands. Forget Hollywood and US police reality TV. Police pursuits in NSW are nothing like what you see on the TV. There is no overtaking the offender. There is no pulling alongside. There’s no going down the street parallel to cut the offender off. No forming rolling roadblocks. None of that.
Despite having a high-performance Highway Patrol interceptor at their disposal, all those officers are allowed to do is follow, and hope the offender pulls over, sooner or later. Preferably before anyone dies.
THE DEAD POLICE OFFICER
There’s no tactical driving, but the cops do have tyre shredding road spikes. The first time they deployed them operationally, 26-year-old Trevor Holton, driving a stolen SUV crashed and killed a senior constable named Jim Affleck on January 14, 2001.
Holton - with a bag snatching accomplice in the passenger’s seat (and the accomplice’s four-year-old daughter in the back) - was living out his very own ‘Need For Speed - Hot Pursuit’ video game fantasy that morning. I’m not editorialising. That’s what crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC told the Supreme Court in his opening address. Holton swerved across four lanes of the Hume Freeway to avoid the road spikes. He struck Senior Constable Affleck, who was thrown 80 metres through the air and died instantly. There’s a bridge named after Jim Affleck now near that spot. Hell of a way to get your name on a piece of civil engineering.
THE COP KILLER
Trevor Holton said he knew about road spikes from playing the computer game, in which the main method of avoiding spikes is to veer off the road onto a median strip or the grass. He actually had the gall to blame Senior Constable Affleck, posthumously, in court.
He said: ''I couldn't swerve; I couldn't dodge him. I was going too fast. It's like he didn't care what happened. To me it was like it was suicide. He could see how fast I was going. He could see I couldn’t stop. He could have avoided me so easy."
TIME LIMITS FOR PURSUITS?
The pursuit that killed Senior Constable Jim Affleck lasted 40 minutes and reached speeds up to 180km/h.Pursuits routinely stretch across several suburbs in the city, and sometimes even across states in the bush. This is some moron in an SUV (or a Yaris) leading the cops in a V8 interceptor across a dozen suburbs putting untold people at risk.
The Deputy Coroner wants a two-minute limit on city pursuits and a five-minute limit on those in the bush. He also wants to prohibit pursuits for minor traffic offences - they’ve already done that in Tasmania and Queensland, and there doesn’t appear to be an outbreak of anarchy in either state. Go figure...
WHAT REAL CRIMINALS DO
The Safe Driving Policy basically says when the danger to the public goes goes off the Richter, the pursuit must be terminated. So, if you’re a criminal, a card-carrying scumbag, you already know what to do. Especially if you’ve been to Criminal University, at Long Bay, or the Goulburn Supermax. Where you’ve learned from someone with a PhD and a lot of spare time. In that case, you’ve got your Certificate IV in police pursuit evasion. Say you’re out there driving, you and your scumbag mates, with four outstanding warrants and the holy trinity of the scumbag universe under the seat - a kilo of meth, an unlicensed Glock 17 and $50k in cash.
When the cops light you up at 1am, it’s pretty simple: you know what to do, so you just turn off the headlights and you drive down the wrong side of the road at 160km/h. It’s guerilla warfare - exploit vulnerabilities in the enemy’s rules of engagement. Drive like that, and the pursuit gets terminated. And remember, there’s a 55 per cent chance you’ll get away with it. Pretty good odds, considering the consequences of pulling over in that situation. That’s not advice, by the way - it’s what a serving police officer told me goes on, out there.
Police don’t want to breach the Safe Driving Policy because it protects them. The cops are absolutely allowed to break the road rules when they drive. That’s OK. But some offences behind the wheel are crimes - like dangerous driving occasioning death. That’s an offence under the Crimes Act.
Driving within the safe driving policy, police don’t commit dangerous driving. But outside the policy, that door is wide open. No Highway Patrol officer wants to be charged with dangerous driving occasioning death, because cops can - and do - go inside for crimes. I’ve heard it’s especially not fun for them.
Deputy Coroner Hugh Dillon says the NSW Police Safe Driving Policy is “unequivocally” flawed. The paradox, he says, is that law enforcement is overemphasised to the detriment of public safety.
“Certainly,” he says, “The key principle - that pursuit is a last resort and must only be undertaken when required by the gravity of the circumstances - appears to be interpreted with considerable elasticity and apparently ignored altogether on some occasions.” That’s coroner-speak for: The policy and its implementation are routinely just bullshit.
Predictably enough, the Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Stuart Ayres, turned the January 8 death of 17-month-old Talia Tauaifaga into a political football, citing a “high level review of the pursuit policy” which was apparently “well advanced”.
So that’s great news then. Well done, Stuart Ayres. What a load of weapons-grade political bullshit.
Hamish Raj, 17-month-old Talia, senior constable Jim Affleck - and all the others killed and injured in police pursuits, and their families, who also suffer terribly to this day, do not deserve to be dead. They’re not ‘collateral damage’ - they’re unjustly killed. Collateral damage is acceptable death of innocent people - generally non-combatants - killed as a consequence of necessary military actions, in the course of achieving legitimate military objectives. And even then, under international law, those deaths must be proportionate to the anticipated outcome of that action. People killed during police pursuits - innocent bystanders, police officers and even those who flee - fail every collateral damage and proportionality test there is. They are unjustly killed by a system that’s broken.
THE INNOCENT BYSTANDER WHO CHANGED THE LAW
Nineteen-month-old Skye Sassine was killed when a fleeing driver crashed into her parent’s car and killed her on New Year’s Eve 2009.
Up until that time it wasn’t actually a crime to flee the cops. Now it is - carrying a maximum jail term of three to five years.
They even named section 51B of the Crimes Act after her - it’s called Skye’s law.
Hell of a way to get a piece of legislation named after you. She wasn’t collateral damage either. Just another kid unjustly and disproportionately killed in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her killer, William Ngati, was one of those rare hardened criminals fleeing the cops - a 29-year-old armed robber.
Sky Sassine's killer William Ngati will be eligible for parole in 2024. Skye Sassine will of course be dead for ever.
The collateral damage and proportionality tests are why Queensland no longer engages in trivial pursuits. They’ve put public safety first. Here in NSW the inmates appear still to be running the asylum, with full ministerial inactivity for support - and until someone grows the balls to make the required changes, pursuits will continue to be a deadly serious problem in this state. The NSW Police’s institutional infatuation with trivial pursuit simply must be stopped. Send the link to this video to your local state member. It might help. Leave a comment below; let me know what you think, subscribe for regular updates and visit the website for more information. I’m John Cadogan. Thanks for watching.