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Police pursuit on Wellington waterfront put public at “unnecessary, unjustified risk”

Press Release – Independent Police Conduct Authority
The Independent Police Conduct Authority has found that an officer who pursued a fleeing driver along the Wellington waterfront put the public at unnecessary and unjustified risk.

At about 1.55pm on Friday 8 April 2016, Police became aware that a driver of a Mitsubishi had stolen a radar detector from a vehicle parked on Vivian Street, Wellington.

A short time later, an officer, driving an unmarked Police car, saw the Mitsubishi on Oriental Parade and began following it. A pursuit commenced on Kent Terrace when the driver of the Mitsubishi failed to stop.

The officer followed the Mitsubishi through traffic stopped at a red light at the intersection of Tory Street and Cable Street and pursued it at a low speed the wrong way down Cable Street (a one way street). Both the officer and the Mitsubishi entered the Wellington waterfront at Taranaki Street.

At this point, the officer told the Police Central Communications Centre (CentComms) that he was heading right, through the carpark next to the dive platform. The officer did not confirm his location when asked to do so by CentComms.

Both the CentComms pursuit controller and dispatcher believed that the pursuit had ended when the cars reached the bollards at the entrance to the waterfront, and that the officer was chasing the offender on foot.

In fact, a bollard was missing and both cars had entered the waterfront, a predominantly pedestrian area. The cars continued along the waterfront, over a pedestrian footbridge, past Frank Kitts Park and towards the TSB Bank Arena.

The Authority estimates that the officer followed the Mitsubishi along the waterfront at a speed of between 47.7 and 59.85 kilometres per hour.

It was a sunny day. The waterfront was busy and the crowd included groups of school-age children; in the words of one witness “there were children everywhere”.

Two witnesses said they were forced to leap over the side of the footbridge and cling onto metal beams hanging above the lagoon to avoid the cars. A group of children were forced to the edge of the waterfront to avoid the cars.

The officer did not communicate again with CentComms until he was near the TSB Arena. At that point he told CentComms that he was on the waterfront and had lost ‘observation’ for the time being. Neither the pursuit controller nor the dispatcher was aware that the Mitsubishi had been pursued along the waterfront.

The driver and passenger of the Mitsubishi were arrested a short time later.

The Authority is satisfied that the officer was justified in pursuing the Mitsubishi along Cable Street at a slow speed. However, it found that the officer should have abandoned the pursuit as soon as it became apparent that the driver of the Mitsubishi was able to access the waterfront area.

“The already very high risks to the public increased significantly as the pursuit continued along the waterfront to the TSB Arena. It is unacceptable that members of the public had to jump out of the way and climb over bridges to escape harm”, said Authority Chair, Sir David Carruthers. “The officer’s decision to pursue the Mitsubishi, as well as the manner and speed of his driving, put the public at unjustified risk.”

The officer was charged with dangerous driving. He pleaded guilty to the charge and on 1 March 2017 was discharged without conviction.

Press release from NZ Police
Police accepts the main findings of an Independent Police Conduct Authority report into the pursuit of a fleeing driver along the Wellington waterfront in April 2016.

An officer in an unmarked police car commenced a pursuit in central Wellington after the driver of a Mitsubishi failed to stop. The pursuit unexpectedly ended up on the Wellington waterfront after the fleeing driver gained entry due to a missing bollard allowing access.

We acknowledge the IPCA finding that before entering the waterfront, the pursuit was justified and the officer provided sufficient information to the dispatcher and pursuit controller, who then appropriately considered all relevant risk factors.

But we accept that once the pursuit entered the Wellington waterfront the officer driving the unmarked police car should have recognised the extreme risk to members of the public and abandoned the pursuit immediately.

We also accept the finding that the lack of any communications by the officer while he was pursuing on the waterfront meant that the pursuit controller had insufficient information to manage this aspect of the incident, and had no knowledge of how the pursuit had progressed or of the significant risks involved.

In addition to the Authority’s report, the matter was investigated by Police and put before the courts.

We note that during the court process it was established beyond reasonable doubt that the officer pursued the Mitsubishi at an average speed of 39kph, following factual evidence provided by a Police crash investigator.

We acknowledge the Authority has reached a different view based on the threshold of balance of probabilities.

Fleeing driver situations are often complex and require our staff to make difficult decisions in rapidly evolving circumstances, but we acknowledge that better communication and risk assessment could have been used in this instance.

We note that the driver involved in this pursuit was charged and put before the court following this incident.

The officer pleaded guilty and was discharged without conviction.

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