Crime-fighting requires resources, not just words

Maltese criminality has evolved beyond the levels we were accustomed to in the past. Certainly, the general public is justified in feeling ‘less safe’, than ever before

The announcement of police patrols on the Sliema seafront – following a spate of violent crimes in the area – is on one level a very welcome development; but on another, also a rather sad reflection of the extent to which the Maltese socio-demographic landscape has changed, in recent years.

For those who grew up in a less hectic, and more ‘peaceful’ Malta – where crime was so rare, then (especially in Gozo) many people used to simply leave the front-door key permanently in the lock – the recent rise in reported crimes must indeed come across as a major cause for concern. 

But there are now entire generations who have no physical memory of that recent past at all. The Malta our younger generations have been brought up in, is more akin to the hustle and bustle of any international, cosmopolitan city of half-a-million inhabitants, or more. 

Inevitably, this also means that it is now subject to the same problems of law and order: including social misbehaviour, vandalism, street-violence, and so on.

It may, however, be unwise to interpret any individual crime from that perspective alone. People were very quick, for instance, to interpret last week’s attack on a Sliema jogger as another random act of violence: similar to the earlier, unprovoked attack on former Sliema mayor John Pillow.

But while this crime turned to be less ‘random’, in that sense; it nonetheless underscores the equally worrying emergence of low-level organized crime, whereby professional ‘hitmen’ are available for hire to exact personal vendettas.

Admittedly, none of this may be entirely new to the Maltese criminal landscape. But there can be no doubt that, in scale and scope, Maltese criminality has evolved beyond the (altogether more manageable) levels we were accustomed to in the past. Certainly, the general public is justified in feeling ‘less safe’, than ever before.

Meanwhile, not only has the population increased – bringing with it a host of new challenges, especially in those areas where demographics are ethnically mixed – but so too has the prosperity, and the overall commercial aspirations of the entire country. 

As Malta grew from a humble financial jurisdiction in the early 1990s, to the highly-successful financial services hub it is today… the result was not only a radical shift in the overall quality of life; but also, a dramatic evolution in the nature and ‘quality’ of crime itself.

This much was reflected in the Financial Action Task Force’s decision to remove Malta from the ‘grey-list’ this week. Once again, this was a very welcome development; but it also underscores a worrying new reality, in our fast-changing country.

As FATF President Marcus Pleyer put it: Malta had made “significant progress in addressing strategic anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing deficiencies”. This in turn implies that – when it comes to financial crime, at least – there was a corresponding (albeit belated) evolution in Malta’s law enforcement capability, to counter the rising crime-rate.

Can the same be said for Malta’s efforts to contain other types of crime, however? Has the Malta Police Force, for example, undergone the same sort of radical ‘upgrade’, that we witnessed in the financial crimes sector in recent years?

To be fair, there has been a discernible effort in that direction, of late. The Sliema patrols, alone, attest to the fact that the police are indeed taking the public’s concerns with all the seriousness they deserve.

Likewise, the introduction of Community Policing Teams in various localities – to be extended nationwide, by 2026 – has demonstrably made a difference to the relations between the Police, and local communities.

But from an interview with Malta Police Union president Alexander Schembri, published in MaltaToday, we also get a glimpse into the actual working conditions of Maltese police officers on the beat today. 

It may be not enough to formulate a clear opinion, of the current state of the Malta Police Force; but it does suggest that – at certain levels – ‘policing in Malta’ has not sufficiently evolved, to keep abreast of the ever-changing demands of the job at ground-level. 

Clearly, the Maltese police are still beset by the same problems of staff and/or resources shortages, that have traditionally hampered their crime-fighting efforts in the past (even in the days when there was less in the way of ‘crime to fight’).

And from this perspective, it is manifestly useless for politicians, on both sides of the House, to respond to the growing crime-rate by simply ‘demanding more police presence in the streets’. 

Considering that the Malta Police Force has dwindled, from the (already low) 2,200 staff complement it had at the beginning of the year, to just over 1,800 today: that only raises the question, ‘Where is all the additional manpower going to come from’?

The answer cannot be expected from the police: who have, on their part, already shown a willingness to rise to the occasion.

It can only come from the politicians themselves: in the form of a long-overdue reform of Malta’s entire law enforcement capability. As such, we can only hope that – unlike the case with financial services – it will not have to take a full-blown emergency, to finally force our politicians to take the necessary action.