The Police Force’s ‘Gray area’

The resulting quandary over whether or not the police should be fully independent from government has never been fully resolved.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

 

One of the first things Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia did when appointed to the post - which is politically responsible for the Police Force, among other sensitive areas pertaining to law enforcement - was to hint at the possibility of 'replacements' in a number of key offices.

The Times quoted Dr Mallia as saying that he would not exclude replacing the extant Police Commissioner John Rizzo (among others, including the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces).

No mention was made of any possible reason to want to reshuffle any of those positions; but the fact remains that Rizzo is currently under pressure over rumours of impropriety in his handling of the John Dalli investigation.

Specifically, Rizzo has been implicated by a European parliamentarian in an attempt to advise a witness to stick to a version of events which he himself (and the witness) knew to be false.

To be precise, the direct accusation was levelled not at Rizzo himself, but at OLAF: the European anti-fraud agency, whose investigation into Dalli's alleged links with tobacco lobbyists led to the European Commissioner's abrupt downfall last October.

Rizzo was indirectly implicated in the case, and it is only fair to point out that he himself vehemently denies having ever exerted any such pressure on any witness. Nonetheless it is arguably a first for a Maltese Police Commissioner to stand accused, however indirectly, of such serious abuse of power by a member of the European Parliament.

But then again, it is by no means a 'first' for the issue of the appointment or removal of a Police Commissioner to be discussed at political level.

A cursory glance at recent Maltese history will instantly reveal that this very issue has always been an intensely political matter. The classic example would have to be former Police Commissioner Vivian de Gray, who was appointed by Prime Minister Dom Mintoff in 1956... despite having often been openly critical of the Mintoff administration at the time.

Paradoxically, de Gray had himself recommended to Mintoff that the police be kept firmly in the hands of local government, against the advice of the British colonial government at the time - as revealed in a recent book on the history of the Police Force by Eddie Attard.

Eventually this view would rebound against de Gray, as Mintoff would remove him from office during the riots of 1958. The pretext at the time was that de Gray had expressed allegiance to the British Crown (Malta was still a British protectorate at the time), and not to the government which he himself had earlier argued should be responsible for the police.

Without entering the merits of that particular case, the resulting quandary over whether or not the police should be fully independent from government has never been fully resolved.

Consider the political controversy surrounding the actions of the police under former Commissioner Lawrence Pullicino in the 1980s. And even if the controversies did not even remotely resemble each other, his successor George Grech would likewise resign in 2003, allegedly on the advice of Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami.

Today's controversy is again very different from both those cases, but the underlying issue remains the same. Given the executive powers wielded by a Police Commissioner, is it wise to make the position itself subject to the whims of a Cabinet minister? And what would happen if the police were to investigate a member of the same Cabinet of ministers? For instance, the Home Affairs Minister himself? How 'independent' can such an investigation really be, if the government of the day can simply remove the investigating Commissioner from office at will?

Curiously, Malta's legal system seems conscious of this very problem when it comes to the removal (but not the appointment) of judges and magistrates. To this end a two-thirds majority is required; yet as we have all seen in various recent cases, it is hardly an ideal solution - indeed it has effectively rendered the removal of judges all but impossible.

Nor is the dilemma unique to Malta. In the UK, the 1962 Royal Commission on the Police attempted to define the elusive concept of police independence: arguing that chief constables should be given complete immunity from political influence in decisions to apply the law in particular cases - for example, in deciding whether to initiate a criminal investigation. But as Britain lacks a written Constitution of its own, such concepts remain wide open to interpretation.

Our system is arguably vaguer still, as to date - with the exception of the 1956 report by de Gray - there has been no serious attempt to hit upon a long-term solution to this problem at all. Given that the new Labour government is contemplating a major overhaul of the Constitution, it seems odd that the new home affairs minister would toy with the idea of asking for Rizzo's resignation, without giving full consideration to addressing the matter on a permanent basis.

Surely this issue falls within the remit of the newly appointed Justice Reform Commission, headed by retired European Court judge Giovanni Bonello.

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