Police Ombudsman warns of potential dangers of high risk police pursuits as officers are disciplined

Published Date: 30.11.2017

The Police Ombudsman has warned of the potential dangers of police continuing vehicle pursuits when it is clear that drivers are prepared to put themselves and others at risk in their determination to evade capture.

Dr Michael Maguire issued the warning while releasing the findings of investigations into two police pursuits during which one person died and three others suffered serious injuries.

Eight police officers have been disciplined for breaches of the police pursuit policy.

A 19-year-old died and two people were seriously injured when a car being driven by a 16-year-old collided with an oncoming vehicle during a high speed police pursuit near Carryduff in Co. Down in October 2014.

The second incident happened in the Newtownabbey area in February 2016. A driver was thrown from his vehicle when it was struck by a car which went through a red light while being pursued by police. He suffered serious injuries requiring lengthy hospital treatment.

“I must make it clear that the people responsible for these collisions were the drivers who failed to stop for the police,” said Dr Maguire.  

“But as these drivers were clearly prepared to place themselves and others in danger in their determination to get away, police should have followed their own policy and stopped the pursuits.

Police continued pursuits as cars travelled at high speeds through built up areas, narrowly avoiding collisions with other vehicles and running red lights.

“Both incidents involved cars travelling at high speeds through built up areas, narrowly avoiding collisions with other vehicles and running red lights, while police continued to give chase.

“By continuing the pursuits in these circumstances, police failed to follow their own policy.”

The investigation of the fatal collision near Carryduff on 16 October 2014 found that police cars had reached speeds of up to 110mph in a 50mph zone during the pursuit.

It began shortly after 8.30pm when police spotted a Jaguar car they suspected of being connected to three thefts in the Belfast area.

Officers attempted to stop the car at the roundabout between the Ormeau and Ravenhill roads, but it reversed into one police car and evaded another by travelling around the roundabout the wrong way.

A police patrol gave chase, and two other police vehicles quickly joined the pursuit as the driver made off at speed country-bound along the Ormeau and Saintfield Roads.

The officers did not know it at the time, but the Jaguar was being driven by a 16-year-old boy, with 16 and 19-year-old male passengers.

Officers recalled that the driver appeared to lose control early in the pursuit as the car swerved from side-to-side while narrowly missing a car turning right.

They also reported that it went through red lights without slowing down, while several civilian drivers said the driver had veered onto the wrong side of the road on a number of occasions.

Three people who saw the collision close to the Ivanhoe Hotel reported that the driver of the Jaguar lost control and veered into the path of oncoming traffic before colliding with a Volkswagen Polo.

The 19-year-old man who died was a passenger in the Jaguar. The driver of the Polo and the 16 -year-old driver of the Jaguar both sustained serious injuries.

When interviewed, the police drivers each said that they had assessed the risks posed by the pursuit and concluded that it was safe to continue as they were driving within their capabilities.

“This, however, was at odds with the police pursuit policy and training,” said Dr Maguire. “These state that the main consideration should be the risks posed by the suspect driver, not by police.

Police drivers said they were driving within their capabilities, but their main concern should have been the risks posed by the suspect's driving.

“It should also have been clear that the risks outweighed the reasons to continue. The thefts which sparked the pursuit involved goods valued at £172, and did not involve violence.”

Dr Maguire also found that police guidelines had been breached in that:

  • Three police cars had been involved in the pursuit, when policy stipulates a maximum of two
  • The pursuit continued even though radio communication with the police control room had been lost for a period of 90 seconds - about half the period of the pursuit.
  • The officer who communicated with the control room was not trained to do so, and was travelling in the third police car without any view of the suspect vehicle or the lead police pursuit car.

The PSNI has since acted upon recommendations by the Police Ombudsman that five officers – including three police drivers – should be disciplined.

The Police Ombudsman also noted a number of ways in which police handling of such incidents could be improved - including a review of police radio equipment and other measures to improve communications with the police control room. 

It was established that PSNI had already begun to address these issues prior to the Saintfield Road collision.

The investigation of the serious collision in the Newtownabbey area in the early hours of 21 February 2016 also found that police failed to follow their own policy.

The suspect driver had narrowly avoided a collision with a police car, had driven through red lights and reached speeds in excess of 70mph in 30 mph zones . The pursuit lasted more than 11 minutes through the Glengormley, Newtownabbey and north Belfast areas.

It ended when the suspect vehicle went through a set of red lights at the junction of the Antrim and Hightown Roads and collided with another car.

Warning signs should have been obvious and pursuit should have been abandoned before serious collision at traffic lights.

“The risks and warning signs should have been obvious and the pursuit should have been abandoned,” said Dr Maguire.

The Police Ombudsman’s investigation of that incident resulted in the PSNI taking disciplinary action against three officers – the police driver and his passenger, and an officer in the police control room.

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