Rules on police pursuits are to be overhauled following warnings that they may be undermining efforts to tackle criminals on mopeds and motorcycles.
Rank-and-file leaders have warned that officers could find themselves in the dock over high-speed chases as they can be prosecuted for dangerous or careless driving in the same way as any other motorist.
Under Government proposals published on Tuesday, laws surrounding the offences will be tweaked to recognise police drivers’ high level of training.
Policing Minister Nick Hurd said: “People must be able to go about their daily lives without fear of harassment or attack and criminals must not think they can get away with a crime by riding or driving in a certain way or on a certain type of vehicle.
“Our proposed changes will make sure that skilled police drivers who follow their rigorous training are protected, while ensuring the minority of officers who do cross the line are robustly held to account.”
The Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) cautiously welcomed the announcement – pointing out that it had been calling for reforms for years.
Ministers launched a review of the legislation, guidance and practice surrounding police pursuits in September.
The issue came under the spotlight after a rise in the number of reported offences perpetrated by criminals on mopeds and scooters, particularly in urban centres.
But, under the current law, the same legal test for careless and dangerous driving offences is applied to police officers and the general public.
Police have raised concerns that officers have to rely on prosecutors’ discretion to avoid criminal charges, and face lengthy watchdog investigations and suspension from duty, only to be cleared eventually.
Under the Government’s proposals, police drivers would be subject to a separate test when determining whether they should face action after incidents.
It would require an officer to drive “to the standard of a careful and competent police driver of a similar level of training and skill”, using appropriately authorised driving tactics that are necessary and proportionate to the circumstances.
A consultation document detailing the plans says: “This standard would allow investigators, prosecutors and the courts to take account of the driver’s level of training and skill, not only to make allowance for driving beyond that expected from the public but also if manoeuvres or tactics are employed that the driver is not trained or authorised to carry out.”
Instances in which the test could be applied include “hard stops”, where trained drivers are required to make contact with a suspect vehicle.
In another step, the Government is proposing to make clear in law that a suspect is responsible for their own decision to drive dangerously and that blame should not be attached to the pursuing officer.
This measure aims to dispel the perception that officers cannot chase suspects who are not wearing helmets.
PFEW roads policing lead Tim Rogers welcomed the announcement.
He added: “I do, however, say this with caution as this has been an issue we have been campaigning on now for several years and, although it is a positive step that the Government have finally agreed that a legislation change is required, they must now act quickly to prevent more officers suffering unnecessary and often mendacious prosecutions.”
There were around 10,000 police pursuits and 500,000 response drives in England and Wales in 2016/17.
Richard Bennett, of the College of Policing, said public safety is crucial in officers’ decision-making and in some circumstances it is appropriate to pursue suspects on mopeds.
He said: “Police have to balance the need to take immediate action to pursue an offender against arresting them at a later point.
“The most important thing is that the public are not put at unnecessary risk and criminals are caught and brought to justice.”