A fatal Police pursuit that covered more than 43 kilometres between the Bay of Plenty and Waikato was plagued with communication difficulties and should have been abandoned in its later stage, the Independent Police Conduct Authority has found.
The Authority has released the report of its investigation into the fatal pursuit of Pehi Tahana on 5 February 2007.
Tahana was 14 years old and was driving a stolen, unwarranted Holden Commodore that a VTNZ crash analyst later deemed unfit to be on the road. He crashed after running over road spikes laid by Police in Harwoods Road, South Waikato, and died at the scene. One of his two passengers suffered serious injuries, and the other suffered minor injuries. A member of the public received moderate injuries after his van was hit by the car as it crashed.
The pursuit began in Tauranga and took place in three separate stages over 43.5 kilometres, involving four marked and one unmarked Police cars.
Stage 1 of the pursuit lasted approximately three and a half minutes and covered 6.6 km at an average speed of 113 kph, before it was abandoned near the outskirts of Tauranga when Tahana’s driving became extremely reckless.
Stage 2 of the pursuit lasted approximately four and a half minutes and covered a distance of 7.3km at an average speed of 97kph. During this stage Police vehicles were travelling within the speed limit, did not activate their lights or sirens, and were not always within sight of the Commodore.
The third stage of the pursuit took place over the Kaimai Ranges, lasted approximately 14 minutes and covered 29.6km at an average speed of 122kph. Throughout stage 3 Police patrols and dispatchers at the Northern Communications Centre encountered serious communication difficulties as the vehicles travelled through an area covered by three Police radio channels. This contributed to confusion about who was leading the pursuit and how many Police vehicles were involved, and ultimately contributed to the decision to use road spikes when, due to the Commodore’s speed, they should not have been used.
The Authority has found that while the early stages of the pursuit were handled according to Police policy, significant breaches of policy occurred during stage 3 of the pursuit. The risks posed by the continuation of the pursuit outweighed the need to immediately apprehend Tahana. A combination of factors should have led to the pursuit controller at NorthComms ordering Police to abandon the pursuit. The use of road spikes on a vehicle travelling over 100km/h was also a breach of policy.
These failings were errors of judgement.
The Authority recommends:
i) That Police clarify guidelines on whether, once a pursuit has been abandoned, the previously pursuing patrols should ‘follow’ behind the vehicle, albeit with warning devices off and at the speed limit; and whether or not this ‘following’ constitutes a continuation of the pursuit. (The Authority acknowledges that this recommendation is already being addressed.)
ii) That Police assess the effectiveness of radio communication in the Kaimai Ranges area.