Recommendations about management of police pursuits after fatal collision
Published Date: 27.10.2022
The Police Ombudsman has made a number of recommendations to improve the PSNI’s handling of vehicle pursuits following a Police Ombudsman investigation into a fatal collision in Belfast in 2018.
The Police Ombudsman launched the investigation after 32-year-old Lisa Gow was tragically killed when she was struck by a stolen car being pursued by police.
The collision happened on the Ballysillan Road shortly before 11am on 19 April 2018.
The driver of the stolen car has since been jailed for causing death by dangerous driving and five other offences.
Two unmarked police cars were in pursuit of the stolen Audi when it attempted to overtake a van which was turning right into a parking area. The Audi and van collided before the Audi struck Ms Gow.
Forensic evidence, including video footage from the police cars and a police helicopter, indicated that the lead police car was closely behind the Audi at the time of the collision.
The pursuit commander had previously assessed the pursuit to pose a “medium to high risk.” He issued a radio transmission stating that the pursuing police cars would “pull back”.
Although the lead police car did so momentarily, its speed increased and the gap between it and the Audi closed immediately before the collision.
When interviewed by Police Ombudsman investigators, the drivers of both police cars denied the criminal offence of driving dangerously. The driver of the lead vehicle said he did pull back, and the driver of the second police car said he maintained a safe distance from his colleague’s car in front.
The pursuit commander in the lead police car said their vehicle was about to “pull back” but was awaiting confirmation that the crew of the police helicopter had taken over the task of monitoring and providing commentary about the stolen Audi.
An independent expert on the management of police pursuits stated that he considered that both pursuing police cars had been driven in compliance with police training and driving standards.
A stinger device designed to safely deflate tyres was used by police in the minutes prior to the crash. Spikes consistent with those from the device were found in a punctured tyre from the Audi. A senior forensic scientist stated that he did not consider that the deflation had played any significant part in causing the collision.
The Police Ombudsman submitted a file of evidence to the Public Prosecution Service which subsequently directed that neither police driver should be prosecuted.
Having received the PPS direction of no prosecution, the Police Ombudsman, Mrs Marie Anderson, was required to consider whether any officer involved in the incident had committed any misconduct offences.
She recommended that the pursuit commander, who was travelling in the lead police car, should be disciplined for “failing to ensure that action was taken to mitigate the risk” posed by the “close pursuit”.
She also recommended that the driver of the lead police car should be disciplined for failing “to recognise the risk in not creating space between his police vehicle and the subject vehicle when the pursuit commander assessed the risk as medium to high.”
The PSNI’s Professional Standards Department disagreed with the Police Ombudsman’s recommendations. It stated that there was learning for all involved in the pursuit, and gave the officers involved advice designed to improve their future performance.
The Police Ombudsman also investigated a public complaint about a press release issued by the PSNI after the collision. The release stated, incorrectly, that the police pursuit had ended before the crash. The complainant stated that the release had caused distress and impacted on public confidence in policing.
Mrs Anderson concluded that the release was inaccurate and should not have been issued during the ongoing Police Ombudsman investigation. She submitted a file to the PSNI recommending that the matter be addressed as unsatisfactory performance by the officer responsible. The PSNI accepted and implemented this recommendation.
The Police Ombudsman also made a number of recommendations to police to improve the management of vehicle pursuits. These included that the PSNI should conduct enquiries to establish why a video “downlink” between the police helicopter and the police control room had not worked during the pursuit.
She further recommended that police should conduct joint training between its Air Support and vehicle pursuit units, after her investigation found there to have been a lack of detail in the information being relayed by the helicopter crew to other police officers.
Welcoming the PSNI’s acceptance of these recommendations, Mrs Anderson said: “It will be necessary to monitor progress on the implementation of these recommendations and I would ask the Policing Board to note the significance of these recommendations to safe policing practice.”
She added: “It is important that there is learning for individual officers following the traumatic circumstances of this police pursuit.
“My thoughts are with Lisa’s family, who lost her in a tragic accident. I thank them for their engagement with my investigators and for their patience in awaiting the outcome of this lengthy and complex investigation.”
Police Ombudsman criminal file to PPS: 31 January 2020
PPS instruct that expert opinion is required: 30 April 2021
Expert opinion received: 16 September 2021
PPS direction received (no prosecution): 21 January 2022
Police Ombudsman misconduct file to PSNI: 18 March 2022
PSNI direction received: 13 May 2022
Regulation 20 report issued to Chief Constable, Policing Board and Department of Justice: 29 September 2022
Outcome of findings releases: 27 October 2022