Malta's next Police Commissioner faces a daunting task

This level of public scrutiny is something our national institutions have sorely lacked for decades: with far-reaching consequences for our country’s international reputation

The appointment of a new Commissioner of Police will be a historical occasion, both for the Malta Police Force and the country as a whole.

This is the first time a Maltese Police Commissioner will be appointed through a public call for applications - instead of simply being hand-picked by the Prime Minister, as has been the norm since Independence.

Moreover, the shortlisted candidate will also have to undergo a grilling session at the hands of MPs in Parliament’s Public Appointments Committee.

This level of public scrutiny is something our national institutions have sorely lacked for decades: with far-reaching consequences for our country’s international reputation.

Indeed, the recent procedural changes were brought about, in so small measure, thanks to pressure from various international institutions: including the European Parliament, and the Council of Europe.

Nonetheless, the amendments still stop short of the demands by the latter’s Venice Commission report: which insisted on approval by two-thirds of the House of Representatives.

It is for this reason that the Opposition – despite calling for such changes for the past seven years – opted in the end to vote against the bill in Parliament.

There is, however, room to question the wisdom of a two-thirds majority threshold: not least, because a similar proviso has consistently proven unworkable in practice when it came to the removal of judges and/or magistrates in the past.

Nonetheless, there can be no room whatsoever to doubt that some degree of Parliamentary scrutiny is warranted; and above all, that the position of Police Commissioner could not remain at the sole discretion of the prime minister forever.

For the same reason, whoever gets appointed to the role now has a daunting task ahead. Unfortunately, the post has lost much of its former reputation over the past seven years: with many accusing the last incumbent of being a puppet in the hands of politicians.

Up to a point, this was the inevitable consequence of retaining a situation where the office of Police Commissioner was, effectively, a political appointee. As such – and only from a procedural perspective - the same criticism could also be directed at any of Lawrence

Cutajar’s predecessors.
However, in recent years there were various

instances where police seemed to have failed to take necessary action: examples include serious questions surrounding the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation (especially concerning whether the alleged involvement of senior politicians was even investigated at all); the failure to properly investigate the Panama Papers scandal, despite a damning FIAU report; as well as shortcomings in the police’s approach to enforcing money laundering laws.

People are now clamouring for closure in these major cases, especially considering the ongoing reputational damage that has ensued. Whoever is appointed commissioner must therefore deliver this closure – by launching major investigations, and also bring pending ones to fruition - if the post is to regain its authority and the respect of all.

The next police commissioner must also provide a new impetus to a heavily demoralised police corps, providing and showcasing a marked improvement in quality of officers, investigations and public relations.

Major breakthroughs are needed in the fields of money laundering and tax evasion; but also in how police deals with cases of domestic violence (to name but one area where the local police have so far lagged behind).

But the new Commissioner must also be able to bring the police closer to the people again. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in policemen once again patrolling towns and villages: the return of the ‘beat’. This contact with the community has been lacking for many years; and it is also time to introduce further changes: for example, engaging civilians to handle administrative tasks, thus freeing more policemen to serve in localities.

The example shown by the Mellieha community policing exercise shows the positive effect such close contact can have in a community. It indicates that a higher marker presence of policemen on the streets is needed so that the man on the street can once again come to recognise, and respect, the work of the corps.

Most of all, however, the appointed officer must have the personal integrity to act when needed, and to refuse to take directions from politicians. These are the qualities our MPs should be looking for, when they make history in Malta’s first-ever public grilling of a Police Commissioner.

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