‘Bouncers can’t police Paceville’; but nor can imaginary policemen…

When you combine the nature of these ‘random acts of violence’ – in Paceville, and elsewhere – it does appear as though Malta has acquired the same sort of urban criminality that traditionally goes with ‘entertainment hotspots’ in rapidly-growing, vibrant economies

In case you were wondering, that’s a reference to a particular news headline this week: ‘Bouncers can’t keep policing the streets of Paceville, says club owner’ (subheading: ‘Only stronger police presence will be able to control situation’)…

The quote itself is attributed to Jonathan Grima – owner of Club Havana, among other Paceville establishments – who also said: “We’ve seen an improvement because whereas, before, there were none at least now we have four or five extra officers. […] But that’s not enough. We need a proper squad of police officers who are crowd controllers. Paceville cannot continue being policed by our bouncers whom we employ to ensure order inside the clubs.”

Which brings us to the ‘situation’ he’s talking about: described in the article as “the apparent upsurge of violence in the Paceville entertainment hub in St Julian’s over the past few weeks.”

Right: at this point I have to concede that none of what follows is based on any personal experience (my own days as a regular Paceville-prowler are at least a couple of decades behind me, by now): even though, on the rare occasions when I do venture through those once-familiar streets… I notice certain little ‘changes’, here and there.

Like, for instance, the fact that a nightlife zone which was once limited to the immediate environs of only two streets, to speak of – ‘Ball’, and ‘Wilga’ – has now spawled out unevenly in all directions: spilling into (and across) St George’s Bay to the north; seamlessly merging with Spinola to the south… not to mention upwards, too: with a mad scramble for new high-rise developments, from Mercury House on St George’s Road, all the way up to the DB project in Pembroke.

And it says something about the corresponding population explosion, that ALL this much-larger territory now feels just as stiflingly crowded, as the core of Paceville used to feel 20 years ago, or more: when the action was limited mostly to just those couple of blocks, between two nearby street corners (with, admittedly, a couple of far-flung ‘outposts’ here and there: like Styx, Saddles, Raffles, etc...)

But it’s not just that Paceville itself has expanded beyond all reasonable proportion, in recent years: it’s that the flavour of the place has (predictably enough) changed in the meantime, too.

Once again, a couple of small disclaimers: a) it’s not as though I’ve ever felt physically ‘threatened’, on any of those recent walks through Paceville (but then again: I’m not exactly ‘a young French woman with disabilities’, am I?); and b) the Paceville I remember as a teenager was not exactly a ‘haven of safety and tranquillity’, either. (Truth be told, I have distinct memories of both Ball and Wilga Streets literally flowing with urine and vomit… and yes: occasionally, blood and broken glass, too)…

So make no mistake: there was always a certain vaguely ‘Wild West’ feel to the place, even in those earlier, more innocent times. But still: there can be no denying statistics, can there? And according to recent press reports, there have been “400 fights leading to injuries, over the past four years”; and “the highest number of fights resulting in bodily harm took place in 2019, when the police reported 135. In 41 of those cases, grievous injuries were reported, while weapons of some sort were used in 25 cases…”

Now: on the assumption that those ‘400 fights’ represent only a tiny fraction, of all the other incidents that do NOT cause either light, or grievous, injuries – and bearing in mind also the sheer severity of some of the recent violence – it quickly becomes apparent that the crime-rate in Paceville (which, let’s face it, was never all that ‘low’ to begin with) has evolved in perfect step with its recent transformation.

That is to say: not just ‘quantitatively’, but also ‘qualitatively’. On top of an increase in the sort of street-violence we were all already used to – mostly brawls between rival gangs of alcohol- (and testosterone-) fuelled teenagers – we are now witnessing the sort of criminality that we are clearly not accustomed to at all.

As a police spokesman put it: “Although there was a spate of fights in Paceville in recent weeks, they do not follow a pattern. Recent fights were isolated occurrences motivated by instantaneous incidents where perpetrators had no relationship with their victims.”

Naturally, it would be unwise to read too much into that: but when you combine it with the nature of some of these ‘random acts of violence’ – in Paceville, and elsewhere (it was only last month, for instance, that the police started regularly patrolling the Sliema Seafront) – it does appear as though Malta has acquired the same sort of urban criminality that traditionally goes with ‘entertainment hotspots’ in rapidly-growing, vibrant economies (whether or not they choose to consciously model themselves on Las Vegas: like Paceville seems to be unaccountably doing…).

And this shouldn’t exactly surprise us, either: because it has all along been the government’s declared policy to ‘transform the Maltese economy’ by ‘growing its population’ – from the approximately 300,000 of 30 years ago, to roughly half-a-million in 2022 (and which, by the way, the Malta Employers Association now predicts will increase by – wait for it – another 200,000, over the next two to three years!!)

Now: I can’t tell you exactly what percentage of this greatly-increased population will – somewhere between the ages of roughly 14, and roughly 40 – all converge upon the same nightlife Mecca, in search of their own, wildly different concepts of ‘entertainment’… there to mingle with another, equally vague percentage of the roughly 2 million tourists who visit the islands each year… but even without any personal experience to back me up, I can safely assert that the results will not be very pretty.  

There will obviously be more mayhem; more madness; and… yes, in the long run, unfortunately also ‘more murder’. (Or to be more statistically precise: a much, MUCH greater chance that those random acts of street violence may result in more frequent, and more grievous, ‘bodily harm’.)

In any case: I think we can all safely agree that Jonathan Grima certainly has a point, when he argues that the job of ‘policing’ a place like Paceville should ideally fall to… erm… ‘The Police’. Partly because the situation very clearly DOES warrant greater police-presence, in and of itself; but partly also because the alternative is for that same job to fall to others…

… and no offence to Paceville club-owners, or anything; but – even from my own, limited experience with the private security of certain nightclubs-that-shall-not-be-named – the idea of ‘Bouncers policing Paceville’ does not exactly fill me with optimism, either…

But still: if a ‘Wild West’ is what Paceville has so clearly remained… then it is only fitting that its nightclubs would subscribe to the philosophy of so many classic Westerns: “A Man’s Gotta Do, What A Man’s Gotta Do”…

And if there are no policemen actually available, to address that neighbourhood’s growing security needs: then – unsavoury though the solution may be – ‘private vigilantism’ becomes not only inevitable, but necessary.

All the same, however: under the circumstances, we do have to ask ourselves a few small questions. For instance: WHY, exactly, are there not enough policemen, to cater for an increase in crime that was all along perfectly predictable? Why were only ‘four or five’ police officers assigned to Paceville, in response to a situation that clearly demands so much more? (And even then: where were those ‘four or five officers’ reassigned from… if not another part of Malta and Gozo, that now has no police presence at all?)

Unfortunately, the answer to those questions is not exactly ‘pretty’, either. For it seems that – while Malta was busy deliberately transforming itself into a bustling metropolis (with all the associated crime, etc.) – its Police Force has not only failed to ‘evolve in step with the changes’… but it has actually shrunk by several hundred officers, in the past year alone.

This week, for instance, the Malta Police Union warned of “a serious staff shortage problem that has seen over 300 officers leave in the past 18 months.”  The same union has also just registered an industrial dispute with Police Commissioner Angelo Gafà, “after he implemented policies that limit the amount of overtime and extra duty payments that officers can receive.”

Naturally, I won’t enter into the merits of the argument itself… except to say that it more or less fits the same pattern, to a T. If there are fewer police officers, to cater for an exponentially-increasing demand… it follows that the work-load of those few officers will have to increase dramatically.

And if the Police Force is reluctant to pay any extra money, for the extra work-hours it is now demanding from its own staff… it can only mean one thing, really: that the annual budget allocated to run the Malta Police Force, very clearly hasn’t ‘evolved in step with the changes’, either…

This, in turn, raises yet another question: whose responsibility is it, anyway, to ensure that this country benefits from the sort of Police Force it so evidently needs (i.e., one that is capable of actually policing its most troubled crime hotspots: ideally, without the need for any ‘private vigilantism’)? Is it:

a) the Government of Malta (and the Home Affairs Ministry, in particular)? Or

b) the private security of certain Paceville establishments?

But then again, never mind: because it seems that Jonathan Grima has answered that one for us already…