Police Pursuits: We Must Kill the Bill

Greater Manchester Police (GMP) are on track to report a record high number of fatalities arising from road traffic incidents involving the force’s officers. Since September 2020, eight people – Patrick ‘Paddy’ Connors (36), Thomas ‘Tommy’ Sharp (29), Shae Marlow (16), Kyle Hudson (16), Ronaldo Johnson (17), Diyar Khoshnaw (24), Devonte Scott (18), and Brandon Geasley Pryde (18) – have died following pursuits by GMP officers. [1] Earlier this month, another young man was left in critical condition after coming off his moped during a pursuit initiated by GMP officers engaged in an anti-social behaviour project known as Operation Bluefin. This unprecedented surge in road traffic deaths raises urgent questions about police protocols in the initiation and progression of pursuits. Yet this important dialogue is being sidelined by a coordinated national effort to protect police officers involved in road traffic incidents.

The Conservative Government has touted the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill as part of its first duty ‘to protect its citizens and communities, keep them safe and to ensure that they can get on with their daily lives peacefully and without unnecessary interference.’ Yet, as many have pointed out, the bill’s provisions invasively expand policing powers, pitting the interests of powerful police lobbyists against the safety and well-being of communities. 

One provision that has received relatively little attention pertains to Police driving standards (Part 1, Sections 4-6) and includes proposed amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1988 likely to make it even harder to hold police accountable.

Located in Part 1 of the Bill titled, ‘Protection of the Police etc’, the provision responds to a concerted campaign by the Police Federation of England and Wales, a professional association representing over 130,000 police officers. Currently, officers involved in road traffic incidents are subject to internal investigation with the exception of cases that result in death or serious injury, which are referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). During investigations, the IOPC is responsible for ascertaining whether any criminal offence has been committed and, where appropriate, making recommendations to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). If charges are filed, police officers are subject to the same offences of ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous driving’ under the Road Traffic Act 1988 as all other drivers. In Section 2A and 3ZA of the Road Traffic Act 1988, a person is regarded as driving without due care or dangerously if the way they drive either falls ‘below’ or ‘far below’ what would be expected of a competent and careful driver.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposes amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1988 in which police drivers charged with the offences of careless and dangerous driving would be compared to what is expected of a competent and careful trained police driver as opposed to a civilian driver. According to the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill, this reform acknowledges that officers receive additional training in pursuit and response driving techniques from the College of Policing and are exempt from some aspects of road traffic legislation including speed limits and a range of road signs and markings. The Police Federation contend that without reform police officers are vulnerable to lengthy investigations, suspensions and criminal prosecution for violations of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

As members of Northern Police Monitoring Project (NPMP) we are deeply concerned about the proposed amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1988 and their potential impacts on police conduct and accountability. As indicated, in the late nine months alone, eight people have died following pursuits by GMP. Reflecting national trends, most of those who lost their lives were young men and disproportionately from racially minoritised communities. The IOPC reports that between 2004/5 and 2019/20 there were 471 fatalities arising from road traffic incidents involving the police in England and Wales. Eighty per cent were male and more than one-quarter (28%) were under the age of 20. Despite efforts by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), (now known as the IOPC)  and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to reform protocols related to police pursuits, the numbers of fatalities have steadily increased [2]. In 2018/19, forty-two people died following road traffic incidents involving police in England and Wales marking a new ten year high.

The IOPC is now investigating the deaths of the eight young men from Greater Manchester, a process that is likely to take up to a year or more. Kelly Darlington, an associate partner and head of inquests at Farleys solicitors in Manchester, informed the Manchester Evening News that the firm is currently acting for families in seven road death cases. As Darlington explained, ‘One of the things that families always ask is, whether the pursuit needed to take place at all when the seriousness of the [suspected] crime is quite often relatively low, compared to the risk to the public.’ Academics and professional bodies reinforce such concerns. In Police Road Traffic Incidents: A Study of Cases Involving Serious and Fatal Injuries (2007), the IPCC pointed to a growing body of evidence related to the ‘high level of discretion exercised by police drivers in terms of initiating and progressing with a pursuit’ as well as the ‘lack of justifiable cause for initiating a dangerous pursuit’.

Despite these concerns, precedent suggests that prosecutions are highly unlikely. During a governmental consultation related to the proposed reforms to police driving standards in 2018, the IOPC reported that their statistics ‘[did] not show that a high or disproportionate number of officers were prosecuted following an IOPC/IPCC investigation.’ In fact, of the ninety-seven investigations into road traffic incidents completed between 1 April 2012 and 30 September 2018 only two officers were prosecuted for pursuit-related incidents and five for emergency response driving incidents. None were convicted.  Such small numbers of prosecutions raise inevitable questions about the rationale for the proposed reforms in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, suggesting that The Police Federation’s concerns about the vulnerability of officers to criminal conviction are misplaced. At the same time, the small number of prosecutions raises broader societal concerns about the ability of families to secure justice for loved ones unnecessarily killed in road traffic incidents involving the police. While the full implications of the new reforms are still unclear, it appears that one of the few remaining tools by which officers might be held to account, limited as it may be, is being eroded. 

[1] For annual statistics on the number of road traffic fatalities by force see, Independent Office for Police Conduct, ‘Deaths during or following police contact: Statistics for England and Wales – Time series tables 2004/05 to 2019/20’ (IOPC, 2020). Accessed online: https://www.policeconduct.gov.uk/research-and-learning/statistics/annual-deaths-during-or-following-police-contact-statistics. The eight fatalities in Greater Manchester took place between September 2020 and May 2021 while IOPC annual statistics are maintained by financial year. Annual statistics for 2020/21 will be released by the IOPC later this year.

[2] For example, see Independent Police Complaints Commission, Police road traffic incidents: a study of cases involving serious and fatal injuries (London: IPCC, 2007) and Association of Chief Police Officer of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, The Management of Police Pursuits Guidance (London: ACPO, 2008).