Police force... police farce

Passing the buck, instead of taking action, is the slightest abuse that one can think of

Reading reports of revelations in the compilation of evidence against Yorgen Fenech who stands accused of conspiring to kill Daphne Caruana Galizia as well as on the evidence being given in the public inquiry into the same assassination leaves no doubt of one thing: the police set-up in Malta is more of a farce than of a force.

No one seems to have been responsible for anything. In the case of alleged money laundering in which senior figures in the administration were involved, no one felt obliged to take any initiative and everybody just sat at their desk and waited for directions from above.

Passing the buck, instead of taking action, is the slightest abuse that one can think of. Police misconduct involves much more as well.

Of course, police misconduct and abuse is not peculiar to Malta. It is known all over the world and is the basis of many a Hollywood thriller. Corruption, coerced false confessions, intimidation, false arrests, false imprisonment, falsification of evidence, police perjury, witness tampering, police brutality, unwarranted searches, selective enforcement and sexual misconduct all make good fodder for many a scriptwriter.

Mario Philp Azzopardi’s trilogy on the fictional ‘Spettur Bonnici’ – now being produced as a TV series – revolves around the notion of ‘noble cause corruption’, where a police officer believes that good outcomes justify illegal behaviour.

A 2019 study in the journal Nature, based on research on the Los Angeles Police, found that misconduct by one police officer substantially increased the likelihood that peer officers would also engage in misconduct. That means that “police misconduct spreads… like a contagion,” according to Ojmarrh Mitchell, a criminologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The rot in our police force did not start when Joseph Muscat became Prime Minister in 2013, but under his government the rot was allowed to become an epidemic.

In an opinion piece of mine published in this newspaper almost two years ago (‘Domine Dirige Nos’ – March 5, 2017) I had written that even under the previous PN administration, the situation inside the force was so bad that many serious police officers were actually looking forward to retirement as soon as they qualified for a pension.

“Slowly but surely,” I had written, “many valid police officers – most of them PN-leaning – who were disgusted with the way the force was administered left the force... leaving behind them a bevy of incompetent and/or rotten apples running the show. As it happened, many of these were Labour-leaning. This happened before the 2013 election that saw Muscat being elected to power with an unprecedented majority.”

This is also part of what led to the current, absurd situation.

Apart from that, it seems that every police officer has amicable relationships with known businessmen and/or known criminals. Their private goings-on were of no interest to the current Police Commissioner – unlike what used to happen with his predecessors. Familiarity breeds more than contempt and this hobnobbing is another factor that led to the mess that the police force finds itself in today.

In this context, it is worth recalling the case of the former police inspector Roderick Zammit and his brother, former inspector Daniel Zammit, sons of the former acting police commissioner Ray Zammit. Daniel Zammit was ‘boarded’ out on psychiatric grounds while his brother, who was censured for unethical behaviour and ‘dubious’ ties with businessmen, ended being ‘boarded’ out of the force on medical grounds.

Today the police force needs a big shake-up. It needs to attract serious people to join its ranks. It cannot rely anymore on what is available within the force

In Malta bad behaviour in the police force exists but no official is dismissed for bad behaviour: being ‘boarded’ out entitles the officer to a life pension. In cases of dismissal, the officer concerned is not entitled to any compensation.

This is yet another factor that continues to lure people to the rotting apple. The fear of being dismissed is practically non-existent, let alone the fear of action being taken in cases where the conduct of police officers is tantamount to a breach of criminal law.

Today the police force needs a big shake-up. It needs to attract serious people to join its ranks. It cannot rely anymore on what is available within the force – those people are unable to infuse the seriousness and the commitment to duty that one expects from the police force. The rot has gone far too deep.

In this scenario, the country’s pending appointment of a new police commissioner is of an extraordinary importance. The person must recognise that he would have to build the police force practically from scratch – no easy job, of course.

The PN might not agree with the method the Prime Minister has chosen to select the candidate for the job. But it should not miss the opportunity to grill him or her in the Public Appointments Committee (PAC) when the candidate should have prepared a realistic plan on how to build-up again a credible police force.

The courage not to toe the line

Republican Senator Mitt Romney last Wednesday voted to remove US President Donald Trump from office on the charge of abuse of power, becoming the only Senator to cross party lines in the Senate’s impeachment trial.

In the political arena, one rarely encounters the courage to be honest when this means not toeing the party line.

In a dramatic speech just two hours before the US Senate took its final votes on the impeachment articles, an emotional Romney invoked his faith as a key reason guiding him: “As a senator juror, I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice. I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am,” Romney said before getting choked up and taking a brief pause.

He continued defending his decision: “I take an oath before God as enormously consequential. I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the president, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced. I was not wrong.”

He explained his decision in this way: “The grave question the Constitution tasked senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanour. Yes, he did. The president asked a foreign government to investigate his political rival. The president withheld vital military funds from that government to press it to do so. The president delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders. The president’s purpose was personal and political.”

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