Upping the battle against crime

Perhaps we should start talking about reforming the police force not just in terms of collective agreements and rank-and-file issues... but also in terms of investigative and logistical capability

23 February 2017, 7:30am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Monday’s explosion in Msida was the second car-bomb of the first two months 2017. Last year, there were three similar incidents: in January, a man died when a bomb went off in his car in Marsascala. A second car bomb severely injured a man in Marsa in September, while a 67-year-old was killed in October in Bugibba.

Not all these incidents may have been related, but there has clearly been an escalation in the frequency and severity of such crimes. The last one occurred in one of Malta’s busiest traffic hubs, at a time when large numbers of passers-by would have been in the area. It is indeed fortunate that nobody else got hurt.

All this seems to indicate the emergence into the open of criminal elements that previously either did not operate in Malta, or were more discreet and less homicidal in their methods. It could be a combination of both, as violent crime – in itself – is not new to Malta. The pattern of car-bombs follows on from a spate of increasing daring and violent hold-ups in recent years. 

Either way, Malta must confront a new and very direct threat to its security and peace of mind. Criminality (home-grown or imported) is clearly upping its game... becoming more ruthless and brazen, and even (for want of a better word) ‘sophisticated’. The question automatically arises: can Malta’s law enforcement capability operate at the same level? 

The Police and other authorities responsible for the safety of citizens have a lot of responsibility on their hands. On top of the crimes themselves, they must also face an increasingly sceptical public. There have been no arrests (or significant leads) in any of the previous bombings. It may be a flawed perception, but the impression one gets is that the police find themselves outgunned and outmanoeuvred by criminality on this level: both on the field, and also in the law-courts. 

It may be unreasonable to link this issue (as the Opposition does) to corruption scandals under this government: But it must be said that the state of the Police Force today is not conducive to public confidence. The lack of results shows that, at best, there is a lack of resources and intelligence to combat organised crime, At worst, there is apathy and flagging morale. Both are of equal concern.

There is naturally no magic wand that can automatically bring criminals to justice; but there are criminal procedures and examples of best practice to follow. 

Perhaps we should start talking about reforming the police force not just in terms of collective agreements and rank-and-file issues... but also in terms of investigative and logistical capability. Do existing units – explosives, forensics, intelligence, etc. - have the necessary expertise and equipment at their disposal? Should we be talking about specialised anti-organised crime operations, pooling the resources of financial intelligence, legal and police work?  

Whatever the answer, it is evident that Malta’s crime-fighting capability has to get its act together.

Tax evasion is crime, too

On a separate but related matter: coincidentally, one of the main concerns flagged by MEPs in relation to the Panama papers scandal was precisely the lack of a police/FIAU investigation.   

The PANA committee’s remit was specifically to look at how matters were tackled legally. It is another example of how the standards of police investigation are clearly not up to scratch.

As MEP Sven Giegold said, this is a textbook case of money laundering, and should have automatically triggered a police investigation. The question of why this did not happen has never been satisfactorily answered.

Here, however, we must look beyond the police and towards government. Konrad Mizzi’s explanations to the PANA committee, and especially his claim that the accusations against him are ‘fake news’, are not really acceptable answers at all. 

Publishing audits on Mizzi and Schembri’s accounts does not address the main cause of people’s concerns: i.e., that the revelation of a trust fund in a tax-haven such as Panama directly belies the Labour Party’s pre-electoral commitments to transparency and accountability.

Nor does it help that the second government official named in the scandal turned down the invitation to address the PANA committee. Keith Schembri is not, as he says in his letter, ‘an elected official’. But he is still a public official occupying a role of very high political responsibility. He is the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. 

It is absurd to suggest that only elected officials have a commitment to full transparency before the European Parliament. The Police Commissioner is not an elected official either, but he is still a public official, and therefore rightly fulfilled his obligation to the role he occupies. 

One expects an equal if not even greater commitment to responsibility from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.

This reluctance to face public scrutiny seems to permeate all the government’s reaction to the scandal. It has clearly even filtered down to the police and financial intelligence services, too.

Far from settling the matter once and for all, the experience of the PANA committee only reinforced the view that Mizzi and Schembri should have resigned, and that the revelations should have prompted immediate investigation.