A Policy Option Paper for Police Pursuit Deaths: An Inquest into the Death of Sarah Louise Booth

Since the dawn of time, police pursuit fatalities have generated debate. They have been identified as one of the primary causes of fatalities for innocent bystanders, evading drivers, and car occupants on metropolitan streets and in towns with high vehicular and pedestrian traffic (Hill 2002, p. 27). Hoffman and Mazerolle (2005, p. 537) claim that since 1979, high-speed police pursuits have resulted in the deaths of more than 5,000 innocent motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists. and hundreds of thousands of more people have been subjected to acute bodily and mental injuries. When a police pursuit commences, both the police car as well as the fleeing vehicle are engaged in extremely fast driving speeds, which are often reckless. The driver of the fleeing vehicle panics and speeds away from the police car in the fear of getting arrested; in this process, he soon loses control of the car and crashes either into a wall, a kerb, a tree, post, pedestrian, or another car, causing a fatal accident and deaths of the persons involved. As Hicks (2006, p. 109) stresses, the impact of these deaths is too devastating and overwhelming to the extent of triggering instances of chronic anxiety and depression on their family members. In response to this, coroners actively investigate such deaths – caused as a result of a high-speed police pursuit – with the sole intent of determining how these deaths come about as well as formulating measures meant to prevent a reoccurrence of such as incident in the future (Hoffman 2003, p. 9). This paper features an inquest into the death of Sarah Louise Booth, a 17 year old teenager, who died as a result of a high-speed police pursuit along 35 O’Grady’s Road, Carrum Downs 3201, Australia. It also addresses several policy options forwarded by Coroner John Olle to the Victoria Police Center to help minimize similar death reoccurrences in the future.


1. Background on the Death of Sarah Louise Booth

The death of Sarah Louise Booth, as a result of the high-speed police car pursuit between a police car from the Frankston Traffic Management Unit and a citizen car, solicited numerous public protests and was subsequently rated as a reportable death (Olle 2014a, p. 3). A reportable death, as (Joudo 2006, p. 13) explains, refers to a death that occurred under questionable circumstances thus needs to be reported to statutory bodies which can then review it for further investigations in order to determine the cause of this death. Reportable deaths are given more consideration when they involve persons under the age of 18 years (Olle 2014a, p. 2). Sarah Louise Booth was just 17 years old when she was died from a fatal car crash, resulting from a super speed police car pursuit; hence her death was highly revered as a top priority reportable death by Coroner John Olle.

On 30th December 2006, earlier that evening, Mr. Nathan Unwin picked up Sarah Louise in a 1988 Holden VL Commodore sedan car and was to drop her home to her mother, Ms. Donna Dinsdale. As Mr. Unwin was driving down Brunell Road, he encountered a police car, signaled Frankston 616, and abruptly took a left turn into Stephenson Road; in a manner that seemed that he was trying to escape interception by the police (Olle 2014a, p. 4). This abrupt left turn triggered the police staff, namely Leading Senior Constable Gregory Wolfe and Acting Sergeant Pritpal Thandi, to trail Mr. Unwin’s car. Soon, Mr. Unwin started speeding at 138 kmph, triggering the police car to also elevate its speed to about 170 kmph as the police naturally thought that Mr.Unwin was trying to escape arrest as he may have done something wrong like stealing a car. Mr. Unwin continued speeding while making left and right turns at various junctions including Lathams Road, Hall Road, Currawong Drive, and finally O’Grady’s Road, where he finally lost total control of the car on sighting a traffic island. The sedan hit the left kerb of the island so hard that the vehicle rotated in a clockwise direction while skidding a distance of, roughly, 80 meters, before it struck a tree alongside a nature section on 35 O’Grady’s Road (Olle 2014a, p. 7). The impact of these hits caused multiple bodily injuries for both Sarah Louise as well as Mr. Nathan Unwin. Unfortunately, Sarah’s injuries were so catastrophic that she died on the spot. Mr. Unwin, on the other hand, was airlifted to Alfred Hospital, where he recuperated before being sentenced to a 9-year jail imprisonment for substance intake (Olle 2014a, p. 8).

1.2 Findings into Sarah’s Death Inquest - Inept Victoria Police Manuals (VPM)

This section demonstrates three events that Coroner John Olle unearthed during the inquest of Sarah’s death, in line with Section 67 of the Coroners Act 2008, presented in the Coroners Court of Victoria on 14th July 2014. Olle (2014b, p. 7) insists that the VPMs are quite inept with regards to properly laying out the accurate risk assessment procedures that ought to be followed in the face of a police pursuit. Victoria Police Manuals (VPMs) encompass the instruction booklets developed by the Victoria Police Center in a bid to guide the police in their daily law enforcement activities (Cameron 2007, p. 17). The VPMs contain a section that specifically guides the police staff on how to conduct a police car pursuit. Olle (2014b, p. 8) however emphasizes that this particular section fails to articulate appropriate risk assessment procedures and factors regarding how the police should administer a police pursuit. For example, the manuals fail to clarify: if or not the police should chase a car only because its driver seems to be fleeing the police; whether or not it is worth chasing a car whose driver seems to have only committed a minor obstruction like failure to put on the headlights; and whether or not it is worth it to chase a car down a street that seems to have a very heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic, bearing in mind the highly potential risks of causing an accident and killing some pedestrians as well as vehicle passengers (Olle 2014b, p. 9). During the inquest of Sarah’s death, Coroner John Olle noticed that L/S/C Wolfe and A/S Thandi, the police staff in the pursuant Frankston 616 police car, started to chase after Mr.Unwin’s car just because he seemed to be fleeing from police interception. In light of this, the coroner strongly emphasized that police should not necessarily follow a car just because the driver seems to be avoiding interception. He said that a take-off from a police car does not necessarily mean that the driver has committed a lawful offence. He actually stressed that a commence of a high-speed police pursuit just serves to aggravate panic in the driver so much that he may start to drive in a lighting speed, without regarding the traffic road signs and lights, and he may eventually lose control of the car and end up causing a fatal accident and killing innocent road users in the process (Falk 2006, p. 39).

The coroner also took note of the difficulty that the constables experienced in reporting their own car speed to the PCC. A/S Thandi revealed to the court that he only managed to report the speed of the police car only once regardless of the numerous times that the PCC had solicited him to announce the level of speed they were travelling at along Lathams Road (Olle 2014b, p. 10). When questioned, A/S Thandi justified himself by saying that situation at hand was quite wanting and, therefore, he thought it was wiser to provide directions rather than announce their car speed, since they had to keep making several turns and changing directions each and every time (Olle 2014b, p. 11). The provision of directions notwithstanding, it was still critical to announce the speed of the police car as this was the piece of information that the PCC could have used to assess the potentiality of hazards ahead as well as instruct the constables to abandon the pursuit. Following the failure to report their car speed, it was relatively impossible for the Pursuit Controller – Acting Senior Sergeant Ian Pregnell - from the Police Communications Center (PCC) to call for an abandonment of the police pursuit as he could not accurately assess the forthcoming risks. This just serves to show that there was inefficient communication transpiring between the police constables and the staff in the PCC. Had there been sufficient communication to abandon the pursuit, Sarah Louise Booth would probably be alive and well today.

1.3 Options

This section presents two suggestions forwarded by Coroner John Olle to the Victoria Police Center as a form of a desperate appeal to the Police Department to review their policy options with regards to conducting police pursuit; and possibly avoid a reoccurrence of a similar incident in the future.

1.3.1 Redevelopment of Risk Assessment Factors in VPMs

In light of the insufficiency of risk assessment factors and procedures illuminated in the section above, Coroner John Olle appealed to the Victoria Police Center to urgently redevelop their police manuals; more so the section set out to regulate police pursuits in the Victorian jurisdiction. First and foremost, the coroner urged the Police Department to not always launch a police pursuit whenever they spot a vehicle that seems to be fleeing a police intercept (Victoria Police Center 2014, p. 2). The mere fact that a driver seems to take off from the police does not necessarily connote that the driver has committed an offence. The coroner instead suggested that the police officers should only launch a pursuit only if they had antecedent criminal information relayed to them about a driver of a given fleeing car (Olle 2014b, p. 9). Even then, the police must always first consider safety and preservation of life and property as these shall always have supremacy over the need to intercept such a criminal. The coroner also urged the police officials to always weigh if, indeed, it is really worth it to pursue a vehicle if the driver is a minor offender of insignificant misdemeanors such as shoplifting or traffic light violations. Such a minor offender may be propelled to drive off recklessly, in fear of being arrested, only to kill or badly injure other third-party road users.

The coroner also admonished the Victoria Police Center to redevelop their police pursuit protocol and include traffic light models (Victoria Police Center 2014, p. 3). A traffic light model, as explained by Joudo(2006, p. 21), consists of signaling apparatus installed at junctions and road intersections with the chief aim of helping motorists drive carefully, thus controlling traffic even in the absence of traffic police. The revamping of traffic light models in the Victorian jurisdiction should definitely help motorists slow down at junctions and drive at a reasonable speed, hence preventing accidents and loss of car control. This way, road risks will decrease and eventually stop.

1.3.2 Installation of an In-Car Video (ICV)

As the Victoria Police Center (2014, p. 4) asserts, Coroner John Olle also called for an installation of an In-Car Video in police cars. In-Car Videos, as defined by Hoffman (2003, p. 27), comprise of small, compact cameras that are stuck onto a car’s front windshield, using sticky strips, for the purposes of documenting live recordings of road events such as accidents, traffic violations, as well as insurance misdemeanors. With the installation of ICVs, resolving of road disputes, collisions, as well as other violations shall be made easier. There will be no more uncertainties involved when trying to decipher the causes of reportable deaths in road carnages, police pursuits included (Olle 2014b, p. 12). Coroners will also have an easier time in determining the identity of the deceased and knowing who was on the wrong in a fatal police pursuit. A second ICV could also be placed in another strategic position inside the car so as to track the speed a car is travelling at; this will help notify the police staff in a Police Communication Center about a car’s current speed. The ICV, in conjunction with a robust two-way communication system, will come in handy during the supervision of an ongoing police pursuit as both sides will be able to communicate to each other quite easily (Olle 2014b, p. 11).

Conclusion - Recommendations

In my opinion, I would say that both of the aforementioned policy options above are befitting. I would commend for the enforcement of both of them because they would, to a great extent, help in decreasing the level of reoccurrence of a fatal police pursuit in the future. The first recommendation opts for a redevelopment of the risk assessment factors and procedures contained in the Victorian Police Manuals (VPMs). These redevelopments will include a reconsideration of the worthiness of launching a police pursuit in the event of spotting a vehicle that is merely fleeing because he does not want to encounter a police interception. The redevelopment urges police to not necessarily launch a pursuit just because the driver of a fleeing car is a minor offender of road rules. The revision of protocols in the manuals will greatly help in reducing road carnages, resulting from fatal police pursuits, as police staff will only be allowed to launch pursuits only if they had prior knowledge about a criminal whom they have spotted fleeing away. The second policy option – to install ICVs inside vehicles – is also commendable because these devices will be very instrumental in documenting live recordings of road disputes, accidents, and traffic violations. This will help coroners in their day-to-day affairs of determining the events that occurred in a given reportable death; hence decreasing a repeat of a similar incident in the future.


Cameron, A. (2007). Independent Review of the AFP Urgent Duty Driving and Police Pursuit Guideline Review 2007. Canberra: Australian Capital Territory.

Falk, K. (2006). To chase or Not to Chase, Law Enforcement Technology, pp. 36-45.

Hicks, W. (2006). Police Vehicular Pursuits: A Descriptive Analysis of State Agencies’ Written Policy, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, vol. 29, no. 1, pp.106-124.

Hill, J. (2002). High-Speed Police Pursuits: Dangers, Dynamics, and Risk Reduction, Crime and Justice International, vol. 20, no. 80, pp. 27-29.

Hoffmann, G. (2003). Police Pursuits: A Law Enforcement and Public Safety Issue for Queensland. Brisbane: Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission.

Hoffman, G., and Mazerolle, P. (2005). Police Pursuits in Queensland: Research, Review and Reform, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 530-545.

Joudo, J. (2006) Deaths in Custody in Australia: National Deaths in Custody Program Annual Report 2005: Technical and Background Paper, No. 21. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Olle, C. (2014a). Finding into Death with Inquest (Stage One). [Online]. Available at http://www.coronerscourt.vic.gov.au/resources/71dbacd0-6d4a-4bf3-8466-9591bfa838e7/sarahlouisebooth_497406%28stage+one%29.pdf [Accessed 6/6/2017].

Olle, C. (2014b). Finding into Death with Inquest (Stage Two): Police Pursuits – Comments and Recommendations. [Online]. Available at http://www.coronerscourt.vic.gov.au/resources/5ddff2bf-f7a0-4a4d-b871-f9c3a26dfe0a/sarahlouisebooth_497406%28stage+two%29.pdf [ Accessed 6/6/2017].

Victoria Police Center. (2014). Response to Death Inquest of Sarah Louise Booth. [Online]. Available at http://www.coronerscourt.vic.gov.au/resources/3cbb6121-e634-4f16-bcf3-a3040fe25989/response+victoria+police_booth.pdf [Accessed 6/6/2017].

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