Coroner urges Victoria Police to revise pursuit policy in wake of Raymond Noel Thomas's death

Raymond Noel Thomas had been driving through Melbourne’s north, on the way to the supermarket to buy chocolate, when he was spotted by officers in a marked police car.

Less than a minute later, the 30-year-old was dead, and the unregistered vehicle he was driving was left a mangled wreck.

Four years after the fatal incident, coroner John Olle slammed Victoria Police’s pursuit policy, which he argued left it open to officers to instigate dangerous chases without properly considering risks to the public.

In the case of Raymond Noel (the family’s preferred name which was adopted by the court), two officers decided to begin a pursuit when they saw the unregistered car in Northcote late on June 25, 2017.

The Coroners Court heard the police completed a U-turn and reached 134 kilometres per hour in a 50kph zone as they tried to catch up to the man, who was unaware he was being followed.

When the emergency lights and sirens were turned on, Raymond Noel “booted it” and began to flee down Victoria Street, the court heard.

Both cars reached speeds above 150kph, and seconds later, the man veered onto the wrong side of the road, sideswiped an oncoming vehicle, hit a parked car and crashed into a fence. Raymond Noel died at the scene.

“He’s come to grief … he’s come to grief,” Sergeant John Sybenga, the officer driving the police car, radioed in to colleagues.

While handing down findings on Monday, Mr Olle was scathing of the 2016 police pursuit policy, which allowed officers to begin chases over minor offences.

“I cannot fathom how members new and old can comply with a policy, which on the one hand, removes the prohibition of pursuing a vehicle for minor traffic or property offences, yet stipulates a serious risk must exist before the decision to intercept,” he said.

Mr Olle called for the rules to be revised, saying pursuits should only occur if officers believed there was “a serious risk of public health and safety” before trying to intercept a driver.

“Drivers in panic can make poor decisions,” Mr Olle said of fleeing motorists.

He said a prescriptive pursuit policy was needed, to “remove some of the burden [officers] have in making split-second decisions”.

“Training must ensure there is no scope for interpretation,” he said.

The coroner said there was “no justification” for the officers involved in the 2017 incident to exceed the speed limit to catch up to Raymond Noel without their lights and sirens activated.

Previously, the inquest heard from the Thomas family, who described Raymond Noel as a “gentle giant”.

His father said he had “a beautiful nature and was very protective of his family and community”.

Mr Olle said it was impossible to know why Raymond Noel tried to escape the police.

But he acknowledged the Gunnai, Gunditjamara and Wiradjuri man had encountered racial profiling at the hands of police in his youth.

“Many Aboriginal people in our community bear the scars of adverse interactions with police. It can be an intergenerational legacy as well as the lived experience of individuals in their past and in the present,” he said.

The coroner said Raymond Noel’s race was not a factor in the police decision to pursue him because they did not know who was behind the wheel when they decided to intercept his car.

In other recommendations, the coroner also said police vehicles should be fitted with larger dashboard displays so officers could monitor their speed and said Victoria Police should consider installing in-car video systems.

Police pursuit policy has been a contentious issue in several Australian states for years. Mr Olle said now-scrapped 2015 rules, which discouraged Victorian officers from chasing offenders on the roads, were unpopular and seen as a “no-pursuit” policy.

In October 2019, a hostile vehicle policy was introduced, allowing Victoria Police to shoot and kill drivers as a last resort if they were deliberately or recklessly putting lives in danger.

The measure came after three hostile vehicle attacks in Melbourne during 2017 and 2018, which claimed the lives of eight people and caused nearly 50 injuries.

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