Deadly consequences

A coroner has found a police pursuit that ended minutes before a collision which killed two men and injured a woman in Morwell should have been terminated sooner.

Twenty-six year-old Jason Govan died, and wife Rhiannon was seriously injured, in a high speed crash on the Princes Freeway by a car pursued by Latrobe Valley police on the morning of 21 January 2012.

The 42 year-old pursued Morwell driver, who cannot be named, also died.

The police pursuit was terminated shortly after the man entered the off-ramp to the freeway travelling against traffic at a minimum estimated speed of 154 kilometres per hour at time of impact.

On Thursday Coroner John Olle said a more “prudent and cautious” approach would have been to terminate the pursuit when the deceased drove through a red light at the Jane Street Bridge lights.

“The overall balance of risks in relation to the pursuit had tipped in favour of termination,” Coroner Olle said.

Lawyer Sophie Ellis, representing the family of the pursued man, said the police involved should be criminally sanctioned.

“… of all the options open to police on the day of this catastrophe, police took the most dangerous, in direct contradiction to police pursuit policy at the time that required the safety of the public, police and pursued person to be of paramount consideration,” Ms Ellis said.

In evidence presented at the Victorian Coroners Court, Leading Senior Constable Malcolm Thek said of the decision to pursue where the deceased failed to obey their direction to stop… “you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

“He has driven the car towards us in Commercial Road, reversed the car back towards us – so it displays he hasn’t got a great regard for other road users,” Ldg Const Thek said.

“Other people have seen this… if we’re to let him go without taking any further action and he cleaned someone up down the road then we would be here being asked why we didn’t do something.”

The inquest heard the driver had a long history of mental health problems and was not obliged to undergo mental health treatment after being released from prison in August 2011.

RMIT University adjunct professor Peter Norden, who attended proceedings on behalf of the pursued driver’s family, said 69 per cent of pursuits happened in regional areas.

Professor Norden said 88 per cent of police pursuits were the result of improper use of vehicles, traffic infringements, drink driving and should not trigger a high-speed pursuit.

“This is a victory for public safety and common sense. Two hundred and nineteen people have been killed as a result of police pursuits and a third of those are innocent bystanders,” he said.

Victoria Police in July this year changed its policy to not pursue fleeing drivers.

However, the policy is not an outright ban and considers police holding a pre-existing belief that stopping the vehicle is necessary to prevent serious risk to public health and safety or is in response to a serious criminal offence.

Following the overhaul to police pursuit procedures, Jason Govan’s father, Ricky, told The Express the restrictive overhaul to police pursuit procedures was “going too far”.

“I know for a fact how hard the two gentlemen conducting the police pursuit feel and they will continue to feel that way if the public continues to lay blame on them,” Mr Govan said at the time.

“Blame leads us nowhere… change and education is what is needed.”

A Victoria Police spokesperson said police would take the necessary time to carefully consider the coroner’s findings.