Dealing with an increase in crime

In a country where immigration has already exacerbated racist sentiment, it is all too easy to pin the blame on society’s most vulnerable sectors.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Is Malta becoming a more dangerous place? If public perception is anything to go by, the answer certainly has to be yes.

Recent Eurobarometer statistics indicate that local concern with crime has skyrocketed in the past four years, and now places third after immigration and unemployment. More worryingly, for the first time ever Malta’s concern with crime, at 17%, is higher than the European average of 12%.

The same statistics also correspond with a marked increase in reported crime – especially burglary and theft – in recent years; and this in turn may be associated with changing demographic patterns. A recent spate of burglaries in the Sliema area, although technically unsolved, points towards the emergence of a relatively new phenomenon: criminal gangs engaged in petty crime, believed (in this case) to be of foreign extraction. Earlier, there were similarly localised spikes in crimes targeting property in areas such as Swieqi.

Underpinning all this is the fact that Malta has changed considerably in the past few decades. Economically, our country has evolved beyond its previous status as a bucket-and-spade tourist destination with an internal economy built chiefly on manufacturing and (relatively) cheap labour. The result has been an undeniable improvement in standards of living; but the two factors contributing to this success –economic diversification and population growth – are universally associated with a higher criminal activity.

Malta now has the population of a medium-sized European city, while simultaneously reserving both the aspirations and the outlook of a country. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the cost of this transformation would also involve taking on board other phenomena associated with city life… including the emergence of inner city crime.

Moreover, while these indications of rising crime rates are worrying, it is worth bearing in mind that Malta has indeed remained relatively safe compared with other European countries. Although reported crime has increased dramatically of late – and this in turn is estimated to represent only half the actual incidence of crime – the nature of the criminal behaviour in question remains a far cry from the much higher murder, kidnapping and other violent crime rates registered in other parts of the world.

Be that as it may, the public is entitled to know what steps are to be taken to address this emerging reality. Responsibility for tackling crime invariably falls on the shoulders of the police; and while it would be unfair to blame the force for failing to contain rising crime levels, it would not be unreasonable to expect a more concerted drive in this direction than we have hitherto seen.

From a cursory glance it would seem that there has not been enough corresponding changes to the country’s crime-fighting infrastructure to cope with the stress of Malta’s recent economic transformations. The Swieqi experience seems to underscore this impression. After years of lobbying with the Home Affairs Ministry, the residents of Swieqi finally got their own local police station earlier this year. But it remains hampered by a lack of manpower, and as a result is forced to close down completely whenever the allotted police officers (two at maximum) leave the station to patrol the streets.

Sliema residents are also understood to have had a meeting with the minister to demand a stronger police presence in the area. A stronger police presence may well serve as a deterrent, but it remains to be seen if the force in its present state can provide the added manpower.

On paper, it shouldn’t be a problem. The ratio of police officers per 100,000 inhabitants in Malta is 397: which is lower than Spain’s (511) but higher than France’s (357), and significantly higher than the United Kingdom’s (307). Faced with this, the question to be asked is not so much whether the Malta police has the manpower to effectively deal with rising crime rates; it is whether its human resources are currently being put to the best strategic use possible.

Perhaps the time has come to revisit policies which siphon the police away from their crime-fighting responsibilities, to attend to matters which can easily be handled by other departments. To highlight one simple example: is it really necessary for the police to be responsible for distributing voting documents at election time? And this is but one of several questionable or low-priority uses to which the police are regularly put, and which – taken together – have an undeniable impact on their ability to combat crime.

On another level, one must also guard against the danger of mass hysteria associated with rising crime levels. In a country where immigration has already exacerbated racist sentiment, it is all too easy to pin the blame on society’s most vulnerable sectors. Nor does this necessarily correspond with reality. It is true that crime statistics indicate an increase in foreigners charged with petty theft and especially vandalism; but the same statistics also indicate that the incidence of harder crime (armed robbery, murder and attempted murder, grievous bodily harm, etc.) – not to mention domestic violence – still tends to involve locals much more than foreigners.

Dealing with this issue, then, requires a degree of sensitivity and caution. Clearly there is much work for the home affairs ministry to do. 

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