(First published in The Dominion Post, February 5.)
Driving down the main street of Masterton last Sunday morning, I noticed a cluster of traffic cones on the footpath. A few metres further on, a photographer was taking a picture of the street.I didn’t give it another thought at the time. It was only later that I learned two 15-year-old boys in a stolen car had hit a pole and been killed while fleeing from police. A 14-year-old survivor has since been charged in connection with the crash.
The deaths touched off the usual debate about whether police should engage in such pursuits (which they say they abandoned in this case). This is an argument that will probably never be neatly resolved.At one extreme, there are those who say police should never give chase. No young tearaway deserves to risk death merely because a broken tail light or loud exhaust has attracted police attention, or so the argument goes.
The short answer to that, of course, is that the risk is easily avoided. All the offender has to do is comply with the police instruction to stop.That way, the worst that can happen is a court appearance and perhaps a fine or licence cancellation; possibly a jail term if there’s a list of previous offences. That’s surely better than dying.
At the other extreme, there are those who say that society is better off if lawbreakers kill themselves trying to flee.This is the brutal view that got blogger Cameron Slater into trouble a couple of years ago when he wrote that a “feral” who was killed in car fleeing police on the West Coast did society a favour by dying. That statement was subsequently cited as moral justification for the hacking of his emails, which led in turn to the Nicky Hager “Dirty Politics” saga.
Slater overstated his case, as he often does. But while it may seem un-Christian to say that death in such circumstances is self-inflicted, it’s a view held by many reasonable and otherwise compassionate people.To crash into a power pole while trying to evade the consequences of what is often a trivial offence isn’t quite “suicide by police”, but it’s getting close. The pursued party presumably doesn’t want to die, but evidently places such a low value on his or her life that it’s a risk worth taking.
But the debate over police pursuits goes further than that. If police were to adopt a policy of non-pursuit, the inevitable consequence is that lawbreakers would be given carte blanche to defy them.What a great leap forward that would be for society. It would be the exact reverse of the highly effective “broken windows” style of policing, in which zero tolerance is shown for even minor offences.
AS IS often the case in situations like this, the Masterton deaths have brought forth excuse-makers who seek to shift responsibility for the tragedy.Alan Maxwell, co-ordinator of Wairarapa Anglican Youth, was quoted as saying he was angry at community apathy and the teenagers’ “limited choices”.
“The bottom line is they’re just bored and if we don’t give them things to so, they find stupid things to do and make stupid choices.“At some point, as a community, we have to take responsibility, otherwise these kids are not going to be the only ones [to die] this year.”
No doubt Maxwell is a decent man who’s grieving for two boys he knew personally, and in whom he saw good qualities. But since when did being bored justify stealing someone’s car? And why do so many people minimise criminal behaviour by referring to it as making “stupid choices”?Maxwell’s comments reminded me of the Catholic priest in the 1990s who, presumably temporarily unhinged by emotion, blamed the government for the deaths of several young Maori men in a Christchurch marae fire.
Yes, the deaths of the Featherston boys was a tragedy. There will be people who loved them and cared for them. They will be mourning.I don’t know what circumstances led to two 15-year-olds being out in a stolen car at 2.15am. I do know, however, that one of the boys was named Pacer, which was the name of an Australian muscle-car of the 1970s, and that he had siblings named Chevy, Dodge and Corvette. Hmmm.
I also know that “the community” doesn’t make teenage boys steal a car or make a run for it when the police try to intercept them. For that, the responsibility must lie elsewhere.