The institutional rot still runs deep

Like the rotten fish of the Maltese idiom, the stench must be addressed at its head. Without strong moral leadership there can be no revolution inside the police force

It is by no means surprising that the recent arrest of 41 traffic policemen, in connection with a fraud racket, would have dismayed a nation that has every reason to be tired of scandals involving corruption and abuse of power.

An internal police investigation has uncovered widespread bribery and abuse, involving more than half of the traffic branch. Police officers were allegedly receiving payments for extra duty on various road work projects, but failing to turn up. By Friday, the police confirmed 41 arrests, of which 25 were granted bail. Seven have resigned from the force.

Such were the relative proportions of the scandal, that it made it into the international press under sensational headlines such as ‘More than half Malta’s traffic police arrested for fraud’ (New York Times).

Clearly, this couldn’t have erupted at a worse time, for a country already heavily demoralised by years of similarly humiliating international coverage.

And yet Prime Minister Robert Abela was upbeat when reacting to the news: describing the fact that the police force was investigating its own members as “a clear sign that the institutions were working”.

Abela’s reasoning may be understandable, given that the preceding Maltese administration had been so harshly criticised for engineering a collapse in the rule of law... and that it is now his own job to somehow atone for all the damage to our country’s reputation.

In fairness, it is also true that such drastic action does indicate a degree of commitment to weeding out corruption at source: though it remains to be seen how far Abela’s resolve will truly extend.

Nonetheless, the scandal reveals far more than Abela intimated with his comment. It also points towards the sheer extent to which the institutional rot had been allowed to degenerate. It attests to the shambles that had been allowed to fester within the police force: a serious situation of bribery and alleged extortion, which could also signify that the problem may extend much deeper inside the institution.

Be that as it may, this battering the Maltese force has taken is too serious not to require political intervention.

And while Abela is not personally responsible for mistakes made by the Muscat administration, the onus of rectifying them remains his own, as Prime Minister.

As such, he must take stock of all past decisions and situations that facilitated this slide into squalor: including the several changes of police commissioner that took place under Labour, either due to incompetence or scandal; as well as the revelations of the ongoing Caruana Galizia murder inquiry, from which it seems that top police brass fraternised with a suspect, who is also a business magnate in his own right (maybe knowing, or not knowing, that the business magnate was a person of interest in the assassination – but still, the fact that the police force’s FIAU liaison fraternised with the 17 Black owner is a major cause for concern).

Added to the cases of bribery that are now being revealed, the picture is one of deep rot that engenders lack of public faith in the police corps. It is, in brief, a disastrous state of affairs for Malta.

Clearly, then, it is time for a real shake-up of the system that goes beyond a mutually-accepted method of appointing police commissioners.

Commissioners need not only to be appointed, but also entrusted with all the tools necessary to carry out a radical reorganisation of the police force: including the upscaling of salaries for officers, and also the sophisticated recruitment of individuals who can be paid enough to carry out investigation of serious crimes.

All too often, low salaries, combined with the arbitrary power of the police force, results in individuals being recruited into a job where they are not aware of the large degree of responsibility or power with which they are entrusted.

This, in itself, may be a factor behind the overtime racket. On one hand, we have a situation where police officers are encouraged to perform extra duties to top up their salaries; on the other, we have evidence of an immoral section of the police force that feels it can safely run a racket of bribes to suspend traffic violations.

But like the rotten fish of the Maltese idiom, the stench must be addressed at its head. Without strong moral leadership, and someone who has a vision for a modern force which rewards its officers properly, there can be no revolution inside the police force.