Police reform more urgent than ever

As the chief entity responsible for the enforcement of law and order, even a single case of dereliction of duty can seriously undermine public trust in an area where trust is utterly indispensable

In any country, the job of the police force is always going to be a thankless task. Even if, on the whole, the vast majority of police officers perform to entirely satisfactory standards, it only takes the actions of a single individual to throw the entire corps into disrepute.

This may be unfair, but it is also an inevitable aspect of the police’s role in any society. As the chief entity responsible for the enforcement of law and order, even a single case of dereliction of duty can seriously undermine public trust in an area where trust is utterly indispensable.

It is for this reason that police forces around the world have taken various steps to ensure that the standards of service are improved, and that the possibility of corruption and/or criminal association is at least minimised. Malta is no exception, having undertaken numerous reforms of the police force over the years.

These include the setting up of an Internal Affairs Unit to investigate alleged wrongdoing by members of the police force. Last year, the government announced an imminent reform of the force’s administrative structure: including the appointment of a Chief Executive and (controversially) giving the force’s top brass a three-year definite contract instead of the indefinite appointments given under the current system.

To date, however, these reforms have not been implemented; and recent revelations have made the need for such reforms more urgent.

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister requested an inquiry into the actions of three related police officers – former Acting Commissioner Ray Zammit and his two sons, police inspectors Daniel and Roderick – over allegations of protracted business links with the Gaffarena and Chetcuti scions, in clear breach of the police code of ethics and the public service management code.

The results were made public last Thursday, and at a glance seem to confirm that these links were not only clearly unsavoury, but may even have resulted in the vitiation of a criminal investigation into murder.

According to the inquiry report, Daniel Zammit stalled murder charges against Joe Gaffarena’s son-in-law, Stephen Caruana, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife’s lover, Neville Baldacchino, in December 2008, after surprising the two at his own Qormi residence.

Zammit was the chief prosecutor, and by demanding swabs of the suspect’s ex-wife, Romina Gaffarena, to match with tissue samples lifted by police at the scene of the crime, he unnecessarily lengthened proceedings against Caruana by at least five years.

Elsewhere, it transpires that his brother Roderick Zammit also celebrated his birthday at the private residence of Hugo Chetcuti, a Paceville entrepreneur whom the inquiry describes as a “dubious character whose copious penal record includes regular breaches of rules on his Paceville establishments”.

Daniel Zammit is also a shareholder in a company owned by Luke Chetcuti, Hugo’s son.

Regardless of the criminal record of the individuals concerned, it is clear that such fraternising can and will give rise to avoidable conflicts of interest. As Judge Michael Mallia observes in his inquiry report: “The fact that the two inspectors organised this birthday party, even though they paid nothing, still puts them in a pecuniary obligation, in the sense of the law, making them obliged towards Chetcuti for offering them the venue”.

As police officers who will inevitable come into professional contact with people in the business and entertainment spheres, such links can only undermine the credibility of the police. What remains to be seen is how the police force, together with those politically responsible thereof, will respond to the inevitable breach of public trust. These findings suggest that past efforts to ward against this kind of behaviour have clearly not been successful. The time has therefore come for a more thorough reform.

Without questioning the commitment of the Internal Affairs Unit, one must question whether its administrative set-up is appropriate, given the task at hand; as well as whether this unit is well-enough equipped to deal with such cases.

This newspaper has variously pointed out that, unlike its equivalent in other comparable police forces abroad, the IAU has been set up as a department within the broader administration it should be scrutinising. Surely, it would make more sense for this task to be entrusted to an independent body outside the sphere of influence of the police force.

Lack of resources is another factor: if the public is to expect a higher standard of service by the police, it must also be ready to accept that more of its tax money is diverted to ensure that the force is given the tools it requires to carry out its job.

Moreover, one must question whether the current conditions of work are sufficient for a police officer to resist being drawn into collusion with the criminal underworld his profession inevitably places him in contact with. In 2012 (on the eve of an election), the police were given a one-off pay rise, ostensibly to placate complaints of unpaid overtime.

This is clearly not a serious way to deal with such issues. It is time we start considering a more permanent reform of the Police’s salary structure, to accurately reflect the level of public responsibility the job entails.

More in Editorial