Children's Commissioner calls for police pursuits of young drivers to stop

New Zealand's Children's Commissioner is calling for police to stop vehicle pursuits involving young drivers except in very rare circumstances.

Andrew Becroft said despite police implementing improvements in how they deal with young fleeing drivers, "the stakes are just too high".

This comes after the Independent Police Conduct Authority found the pursuit of a Christchurch teenager, which resulted in death, was not justified.

Just before 4am on October 22, 2019 17-year-old Jayden Richard Breakwell, who was driving a carload of friends, failed to stop for police. 

They commenced a pursuit which saw Breakwell run through eight red lights and travel at speeds of up to 137 km/h.

The pursuit ended when Breakwell drove through a red light and collided with the car of 64-year-old Kenneth McCaul, who was on his way to work at Christchurch Hospital. McCaul was killed in the crash.

The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) found on Thursday that officers should not have commenced the pursuit, and there were multiple occasions where it should have been abandoned.

Commissioner Becroft said if it's known young people are more likely to be killed or harm others as a result of a police pursuit, then the policy of chasing them should change.

He referenced a previous report from NZ Police which showed that between 2014 and 2017, police pursuits resulted in 22 deaths, five of which were of children under the age of 18.

"It's good that Police have been working on a culture change and training recruits in the dangers involved with chasing young drivers," he said on Friday.

"But when the objective for young drivers is sometimes the chase itself, the more courageous thing for an officer to do may well be to back off.

"We would like to see a change of policy to ensure there is never a pursuit if there are reasonable grounds to suspect a driver or occupant in the vehicle is under 18 years old, unless in cases of homicide, or the risk of a very grave event."

He said young people's brains have not developed enough to assess the risks involved with pursuits, making them more likely to flee, even if they have only committed a minor offence.

Becroft compared New Zealand's pursuit rate to Queensland, Australia where police pursuits are not allowed in any case except those involving murder, attempt to murder or other very serious offences. 

He said despite the state and NZ having similar populations, Queensland has had 126 pursuits and no deaths since 2016. New Zealand's recorded 3323 pursuits and 7 deaths.

In March 2019 the police and the IPCA released the review Fleeing Drivers in New Zealand which included eight recommendations to improve police's management of fleeing driver events.

These included improving how some police staff conduct risk assessment, providing enhanced cognitive-based training for managing these complex and high-risk events, and improving communication between frontline staff and communication centres. 

"One of the recommendations from the review was to research the motivation of fleeing drivers," said Canterbury district commander Supt John Price. 

"Part of ensuring fleeing driver events are managed as safely as possible is us better understanding why they happen in the first place, and this work is ongoing." 

But Becroft said the improvements, which police are still working on implementing, don't go far enough.

"While we support the recommendations of the IPCA for greater use of technology to avoid dangerous pursuits, we think it's time for police to change its policy and not allow the pursuits of children and young people in the first place.

"Modern policing techniques make it easier for children and young people to be tracked down later, usually at home.

"It's time for police to abandon pursuits involving cars with young drivers or passengers. The stakes are just too high."