ANDREW HOLOTA: To pursue or not: The police enigma

They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Police officers are faced with that uncomfortable reality every time they are faced with the decision whether to pursue a fleeing vehicle.

Last week, a 21-year-old man tried to flee from police in Abbotsford.

Robert Minler lost control of his car, sheared off a power pole and slammed into a building.

It was a terribly tragic end to young life. If there was anything remotely fortunate about it, it’s that he didn’t maim or kill someone else.

But then, the blame-game started, as it inevitably does with these incidents.

In this case, Abbotsford Police was alerted by the Mounties of a possible impaired driver on Highway 1, heading to Abbotsford.

An officer eventually spotted the car and pulled it over in a church parking lot at Gladwin and Maclure.

He called for backup, and that’s when the driver suddenly decided to take off.

There was a time when the police would immediately have been in high-speed pursuit. However, there have been many collisions between innocent motorists, and the fleeing suspects or police cars in recent years.

The decision to pursue is now considered a high-risk option dependent on traffic,  road conditions and other factors.

In this case, police did not pursue.

Moments later, the driver crashed.

Predictably, there are now suggestions the police should have gone after the vehicle, and somehow stopped it, or run it off the road.

And if they had tried to ram the car off the road, and that resulted in the driver’s death, or a fatal collision with another vehicle, who would be crucified by the public?

I am continually amazed at how people come up with such pat answers.

Why didn’t the cops put out a spike belt?

Because that takes time and coordination, and a spot where if the fleeing vehicle goes out of control, it won’t kill someone else.

In this case, the driver crashed within mere moments. There was no time for belts, blockades or anything else.

Remarkably – or perhaps not – the courts even exhibit this sort of cops-can-see-into-the-future thinking.

A case in point – the tragic Surrey story of 11-year-old Tina Burbank. She was killed by the driver of a stolen sedan initially being pursued by police.

On a July evening in 2000, Tina was riding in the family van, returning home from a picnic with her grandparents. Blocks away was a teen druggie and his friend, in a stolen Toyota.

A Mountie pulled the car over. Later, in court, the driver said he looked in the rear-view mirror and made eye contact with the cop. Thinking she recognized him for the junkie car thief he was, he panicked and stomped on the gas.

The officer didn’t know who was in the car. She went after them. The pursuit lasted all of 30 seconds before the Mountie made the decision to back off.

It didn’t matter.

Moments later, the speeding teens ran a stop sign and slammed into the Burbank’s SUV.

As cruel fate would have it, Tina had just undone her seatbelt to retrieve a ball dropped by her little brother. The impact ejected her from the vehicle, and she was killed.

The judge in the civil case ruled that the Mountie was 15 per cent to blame.

So, initiating pursuit was wrong. And if she didn’t, and the kid killed Tina anyway? The cop would have been blamed for not trying to stop the car.

It’s damned near impossible to be right.

Andrew Holota is the editor of The Abbotsford News


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