POLICE ASSOCIATION CALLS FOR TOUGHER PENALTIES FOR LASER OFFENCES
The Police Association favours tougher penalties for those caught targeting aircraft with high powered lasers – falling short of NZALPA‘s call for complete prohibition.
Police Association President Chris Cahill says his members share NZALPA’s frustrations over the increase in illegal and dangerous use of lasers that can blind pilots and put lives at risk.
“We need to get the message out there that laser strikes are a significant risk to pilots and the travelling public - and also anyone on the ground if a plane was to crash.”
However, the Association is not joining NZALPA’s call for a complete prohibition of the high-powered lasers.
“We would need to better understand what the need is for high-powered lasers in the commercial environment. If that can’t be clearly demonstrated then we would support a full ban, but if there is good commercial reason for these lasers to be used then there needs to be a restriction around who can have them,” he says.
Chris Cahill believes offenders should be charged with endangering transport, because the potential penalties for that offence are significantly greater than breaching the Civil Aviation Act.
Pilots of the Police Eagle helicopters are now being deliberately targeted with lasers by criminals wanting to distract them while they are doing their police work, Chris says. He believes this is a tactic of some gang members in particular and is a reaction to the effectiveness of the Eagle helicopters.
The Eagle helicopters are being targeted at least weekly, and not Justin Auckland. Chris says it is a concern for the pilots, especially when they areaway from built up, brightly lit areas. A laser strike in those conditions can result in the pilot losing all visual reference.
“The crews use night vision goggles at times and that does provide some protection but using this technology is not really an answer and not suitable all of the time. It’s certainly not practical for commercial pilots,” he says.
Chris says the Eagle pilots are aware of the increasing risk they face from laser strikes, but it is not stopping them from doing their job.
“It is clearly a health and safety issue, and this is where the government needs to get on board with it. The reality is that if an accident resulted from a laser strike, no-one could hide from the fact that the issue wasn’t addressed.
Chris believes politicians are struggling with the question of whether changing the penalties will have any effect given the widespread availability of lasers.
Chris says his association supports a doubling of the penalties, as proposed by Hamish Walker’s High-Power Laser Pointer Offences and Penalties Bill, but he also acknowledges that increasing penalties won’t solve the problem.
Tighter restrictions on the importation, supply and possession of high-powered laser pointers were introduced in 2014. This resulted in an immediate reduction in advertising of the devices, but it was not an end to the problem. As Chris points out, the problem is that there are already so many high-powered laser devices in circulation and it is so easy for individuals to bring illegal devices into the country in their luggage or to buy them on the internet.
“There are already laws restricting them, it is actually being able to police those laws that is problematic given the random nature of the offending, “he says.
“If police get a report of a laser strike from a commercial pilot and an Eagle helicopter is available, it will be deployed in the hope that it will be targeted - so the Eagle is almost using itself as bait to try and work out where the laser is. This has been successful on numerous occasions, but it is pretty resource intensive. And of course, once they are charged, the courts are only giving minimal sentences.”
Chris would like to see police given more training so they understand the danger of lasers and can recognise high powered laser devices when they find them. He would also like police prosecutors to charge offenders with the more serious transport charges and for the courts to move away from minimal sentences, especially for more serious or established offenders.
He wants to see offenders charged with the more serious offence of endangering public transport (maximum 14 years prison) rather than endangering an aircraft (maximum 12 months prison). This would send the message that laser offences are being taken seriously and leave the courts to decide on the final penalty.
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