Domestic violence: Whose side are the police on?

The macho “closing of ranks”, even within the top echelons of government, betrays the attitude that punching a woman ‘who provokes a man after a long day’s work’ is acceptable

Equality minister Helena Dalli and home affairs minister Michael Farrugia
Equality minister Helena Dalli and home affairs minister Michael Farrugia

If you have ever wondered why it is so difficult for domestic violence victims to come forward and report abuse, then the recent case of the Assistant Police Commissioner (no less) explains it all.

According to news reports, Mario Tonna’s partner recently filed a police report against him for allegedly head-butting her; he resigned his post as a result. In her report she also cited previous incidents when he was violent towards her.

Now we learn from The Times that the Home Affairs Ministry has actually described him as a “hard-working officer who worked long hours” while adding that the allegations against Mr Tonna had been withdrawn.

The newspaper which carried the initial report, In-Nazzjon, also alleged that he had a serious drinking problem, but again we find the Ministry quick to jump to his defence saying that “he had never been reported for working or driving under the influence of alcohol.”

According to The Times, “In the past, when there were rumours that subject might have drinking problems, he had admitted of being under medication,” the ministry said, saying he had been a “hard-working officer who worked his way up through the ranks and worked long hours for the benefit of the police corps and the public”.

Let’s see how many things we can count which are wrong with this statement. Ok, here is the most obvious one: it should never have been made in the first place.

Here we have a serious allegation against the second highest ranking officer in the Police Force, and the Ministry is asking us to do what, exactly? Are we seriously being asked to forgive the poor guy, because he is just so stressed out with all his long hours and all? Because that is message the public received from this outrageous statement: namely, that even if there was abuse, we should make allowances for it. (You know, the guy is exhausted, he comes home, is short-tempered and naturally reacts to any argument by head-butting his partner in the face. As one does.)

What we should have read instead is a statement from the Equality Ministry (Hello? Minister Helena Dalli, are you there?) calling for an internal investigation to substantiate these allegations to assure us that domestic violence is taken very seriously by the police force within its very own ranks. After all, the most glaring question should be, why did Mr Tonna resign if there was no truth to the allegations? And if there are rumours of a drinking problem, the way to handle it is again, to hold a proper investigation, and not simply to ask the person if he is an alcoholic because the last thing an alcoholic will do is admit to having a problem.

It is unacceptable for the Ministry to be blatantly supporting the Assistant Commissioner in the face of such a serious matter especially in the light of the fact that Mr Tonna has a history of harassment against others. Back in 2011, Inspector Tonna had been found guilty of various criminal offences, including intimidating and harassing his superior, Superintendent Carmelo Bartolo. Although the court judgement had banned him from further promotion, the Labour party in Government, in a blatantly irresponsible and atrocious decision, promoted him to Assistant Commissioner. Nice going.

I know that many people will point to the fact that Mr Tonna’s partner withdrew her allegations. They will also ask why she kept going back to him despite the fact that he treated her so badly. It is true that it is incomprehensible to those of us who have never allowed ourselves to become victims of abuse to wonder how any woman can stay in such a situation, or why she doesn’t report it, or why even after reporting it, she withdraws her allegations.

There are often deep psychological issues at play in the victim-abuser relationship, but when someone withdraws an allegation it is seriously worrying because it usually means she is very afraid of the repercussions. A police report means there will be a court case, and while the woman’s name has so far been kept out of the press, going to court will change all that. Her identity, splashed all over the media, will be the inevitable subject of gossip and that is not easy in this small society.

One also cannot escape the fact that Mario Tonna was in a powerful position and clearly, judging from the fact that he got promoted anyway, has powerful friends. And this is precisely the reason why the Ministry statement was uncalled for. It should have given the woman the benefit of the doubt, and offered its complete support to show that domestic violence victims are considered a priority. Instead the opposite has happened. And let’s fact it, if the Assistant Commissioner himself is being accused of such a crime, what hope do women have of feeling that the police are there to protect them, and not the abuser?

When he saw the backlash to the statement issued by his Ministry, Minister Michael Farrugia tried to backpedal and say that it was all a misunderstanding. “The ministry said it condemned all forms of domestic violence and regretted comments which may have been understood as remotely justifying such behaviour.”

Well, he is going to have to do much better than that. He now needs to convince all the domestic violence victims out there that filing a police report is the right thing to do. He also needs to walk the talk and create a safe environment of specially-trained officers who can provide the right psychological care so that the victim does not withdraw the allegations out of fear or pressure.

Instead what we have seen is a macho “closing of ranks”, and the realization that even within the very top echelons of Government there are those who hold the all too familiar attitude that a man punches a woman because she must have provoked him after a long day’s work.

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