Police turn to technology to solve pursuit problems

Police are looking to technology to reduce the number of deaths and injuries caused by pursuits. Laura Walters looks at the options police are considering, and how that compares with technology used overseas.

Police have begun the hunt for new technologies to help reduce the danger of police pursuits, or avoid chases altogether.

Last month, the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) and Police released the biggest review to date of the current police pursuit policy, the sixth review since the policy was first implemented in 2000.

Since the start of 2008 there have been more than 30,000 police pursuits, hundreds of crashes and 79 deaths. In 2017, 3796 drivers fled from police, which is the highest annual number ever recorded.

The two-year review by the IPCA found the current police pursuit policy was appropriate, if properly implemented.

However, it found implementation of the policy came down to personal decision-making by officers, in a high-stress environment, with not all officers properly implementing the assessment tools and overall policy.

It set out eight high-level recommendations which largely focused on improved police training, and police driver classification.

The recommendations also included looking at how to improve police communications centres’ access to real-time information, including through the potential adoption of new technology.

And it called on police to identify and explore opportunities to use technology to enhance the management of fleeing driver events.

Police accepted the recommendations and set out an action plan, which included identifying opportunities to livestream external CCTV footage into comms centres; exploring the option of upgrading the down-link technology on the Air Support Unit (police Eagle helicopter) to reduce delays in video signals to comms centres; investigating the use of location technology (GPS) to help with resource deployment and management during pursuits; and investigating the availability of additional technology that could help strengthen the management of fleeing driver events, such as dashboard cameras (dashcams).

Between 2011 and 2017, the number of fleeing driver events increased by 63 percent.

Police have given themselves until October to research new communications and technology options.

Tendering for tech solutions

On Monday, police listed a tender request for information about potential options for pursuit management technology.

“Police is currently taking action to reduce the death and serious injury associated with fleeing driver incidents by exploring the options available for pursuit management,” the open tender listing said.

“As part of this exploration Police is seeking to identify what solutions are available that provide the capability to safely manage pursuits, reducing the potential for death and serious injury, damage to vehicles and property. Police is interested in solutions that stop vehicles as well as solutions that reduce the need to commence a pursuit in the first instance.”

The tender for the market research contract closes on May 17, and a police spokesperson said no pre-emptive decisions had been made around any particular solutions, and there were no current timeframes for implementing any new technology.

Police officers applied tactics to reduce the risks associated with drivers who failed to stop, and already had ready access to a range of services and equipment such as tyre deflation devices (road spikes), the spokesperson said.

The key purpose of this of the research was to explore additional equipment and technology options that might enhance the management of safety risks associated with fleeing drivers on New Zealand roads.

What are the options?

The IPCA report specifically identified improved camera and location technology as options for police to consider.

Unlike in the US and Australia, Police don’t currently use dashboard cameras or body cameras. Some officers place their own dashcams in cars in New Zealand, but it is not mandatory.

“However, both camera technologies receive high public support and increase police legitimacy internationally because of a higher level of perceived officer accountability, transparency, and integrity,” the report said.

While cameras were unlikely to change the behaviour of the offender, they could serve as another layer of accountability and ideally increase public trust and confidence in police, especially if the pursuit had a negative outcome, it said.

Police staff spoken to during the review were strongly in favour of cameras worn on the body or positioned on a vehicle’s dashboard.

IPCA said the cameras could also help moderate poor behaviour by officers and provide evidence for any court proceedings. Footage, along with tracking data, would allow for an accurate account of police actions during reviews of pursuits, allow for more accurate reporting of pursuits, to verify witness statements, and to debrief and train staff.

Following the IPCA report, New Zealand First called for greater use of the Police Eagle helicopter in pursuits.

The report found the Eagle helicopter allowed frontline officers to stop actively pursuing fleeing vehicles.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush said the review showed staff generally managed pursuits well. "However, there are clear areas we can, and need to improve." Photo: Getty Images

In the Auckland region, the police Eagle helicopter attended more than 65 percent of all incidents and had contributed to an apprehension rate of 99.7 percent when it was involved.

Greater use of police helicopters, and improving the down-link technology to stop the delays of footage between the Eagle and the comms centre, are also options police are likely to consider.

Improved location-tracking technology could help comms centres get real-time location information, and free up the officer from using the radio to relay location information.

GPS technology is also used in some countries to help police to abandon pursuits and apprehend the person later.

In US, technology companies make GPS trackers, which can be shot out of a car-mounted device, or a hand gun, onto a fleeing vehicle. The police can then track the vehicle without being in pursuit.

Over the past couple of decades, there have also been a string of studies into technologies that kill car engines, using a pulse.

The US National Institute of Justice, has carried out research with the Department of Defense and Eureka Aerospace, looking at the effectiveness of electronic discharge devices, electromagnetic radiation devices, and directed energy devices.

The degree of effectiveness varies. However, the main issue is the devices affected all cars in the vicinity, rather than targeting a single vehicle.

New Zealand’s pursuit problem

New Zealand’s problem with police pursuits has continued to compound in recent years, with fatal incidents consistently making headlines.

Between 2011 and 2017, the number of fleeing driver events increased by 63 percent.

A raft of pursuits involving young people caught the nation’s attention, and led to the Children's Commissioner calling for a one-year pilot of no pursuits when a young person is thought to be present. Police is considering the policy.

The scope of the IPCA review did not include the evaluation of potential alternative policies, only whether the current policy was fit-for-purpose.

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