Time to raise police standards

Unfortunately the police force is not new to controversies and the recent events underline the wholesome reform needed to restore the citizens’ confidence. 

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Recent revelations that a former police officer investigating a murder was in business with the accused’s family, led to demands for greater police accountability and integrity.

This week the Prime Minister justly appointed an inquiry to investigate the involvement of former inspector Daniel Zammit in connection with Neville Baldacchino’s murder in December 2008.

But yet another inquiry will not be enough to restore the public’s dwindling trust in the police force. Police officers deserve our respect as they put their lives on the line to protect us on a daily basis but as officers sworn to uphold the law, they have a responsibility to act properly, and in respect of the oath taken by all officers who promise to carry out their duties “without fear or favour, affection or ill will.”

The need for more accountability and openness is especially pressing after it transpired that Zammit had business relations with Joe Gaffarena while investigating and prosecuting the latter’s son-in-law over the murder of Baldacchino, who had an extra martial affair with Gaffarena’s daughter. 

The inspector – son of former Police Commissioner Ray Zammit – was also at the centre of another controversy, after being boarded out from the police force at lightening speed, only to be handed a €60,000 consultancy role with Enemalta a few days later.

Upon hitting the headlines, the energy minister immediately rescinded the appointment, but this did not spare the police force’s reputation from a further battering. 

Unfortunately the police force is not new to such controversies and the recent events underline the wholesome reform needed to restore the citizens’ confidence. 

The Police Act provides for internal structures and mechanisms to uphold discipline within the force but evidently this has proved to be not enough. 

The Internal Affairs Unit is entrusted with the internal supervision of the workings of the force in order to ensure its accountability and safeguard the integrity of the corps through an internal system of investigation that is “objective, fair, equitable, impartial and just.”

The unit was set up to investigate any complaint about police officers made by members of the public or by officers and to receive and to examine any testimonial for commendation from the public regarding a police officer in the execution of her or his duties.

12 months ago the government had announced that it was looking at reforming the force’s administrative structure, including the appointment of a Chief Executive and giving the force’s top brass a three-year definite contract instead of the indefinite appointments given under the current regime. 

Former home affairs minister Manuel Mallia – who was sacked after a police officer who worked as his driver shot at another driver – had explained that the force would have a chief executive officer who would overlook the day-to-day running of the police, the financial aspect and other administrative reforms.

This reform was envisaged to allow the Police Commissioner to focus on criminal investigations, maintaining law and order and recruitment and training of new officers.

However, to date none of these reforms were implemented and Mallia’s successor has the opportunity to oversee a sweeping reform to improve working conditions and introduce checks and balances that guarantee propriety.

Currently, the police force has all the legislative tools at its disposal to investigate complaints or allegations on matters of corruption, use of excessive force, and the violation of the force’s code of ethics, however it might be time to consider the creation of a permanent independent body which investigates complaints against the police. 

The watchdog should not only be equipped to investigate individual complaints but it should also have the authority to carry out regular audits of the police force’s operations and its officials’ conduct.  

The police watchdog would not necessarily investigate all cases of discipline, as the police force already has the tools and structures to investigate minor cases.  

Presently, officers can only be dismissed, asked to resign, demoted or have their wages reduced upon recommendation by the Public Service Commission. This role could be taken over by a standards authority – appointed by the President or Parliament – which deals with the most serious disciplinary cases and consider appeals from people who are not satisfied with the force’s response to a minor complaint. 

Beyond carrying out an objective scrutiny, the independent authority should also be capable of proposing structural reforms to increase transparency, guarantee that police officers do not abuse their powers and improve the level of policing.

Officers who are found guilty of abusing their authority, acting in collusion with criminals and holding business interests should be struck off a registry for police officers, just as doctors and lawyers are. 

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