Policing the police

If the force is to retain its respectability, it must start cleaning up its own house - and to be seen doing so

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It goes without saying that the Police Force, in any country, bears higher responsibility than most other categories for the upkeep of the law. There is even a specific law that can only be applied to law enforcement officers in this regard: the charge of ‘committing a crime one is duty-bound to prevent’.

This is why revelations about wrongdoing within the police corps tend to elicit more shocked and outraged reactions, than when similar crimes are committed by ordinary citizens. News that three off-duty policemen – two of them recent recruits were arrested for cocaine possession over Christmas was no exception. People were understandably indignant to discover that members of the same Corps they trust to fight crime, were themselves breaking a law that they are also expected to enforce. But while the reaction is understandable, it also ignores other equally relevant dimensions to the same situation.

While the policemen’s actions cannot be excused for the reasons outlined above, the crime itself – drug possession – is now the subject of a national (and international) debate. In Malta, the discussion has so far been limited only to marijuana for medical purposes, though there are indications it may extend to recreational use. But the broader discussion concerns whether drug use, in all its forms, should continue to be considered as a matter for the criminal courts... or whether it should be decriminalised altogether.

Naturally, this has no direct bearing on the case in question. Regardless of whether they were police officers or not, one cannot be judged on the basis of laws that have yet to be drawn up. Nonetheless, a country’s legislation is also effectively a mirror to that country’s changing social and cultural attitudes. From this perspective, it is useless denying that Malta along with much of the rest of the world is moving towards a general relaxation of drug legislation: primarily, on the basis that the so-called ‘War on drugs’ has, in fact, been lost.

Viewed in this context, the arrest of those three policemen assumes a different shade. Does it point (as many, including the Opposition leader, have argued) to a general collapse in disciplinary levels within the Malta Police Force? And if so, do structures and regulations need changing?

Or is it in fact a case that the Police Corps, like other institutions, is merely reflecting the shift in society and public thinking?

Again, this doesn’t change the situation regarding the police officers themselves. Whether public thinking has shifted towards accepting (however reluctantly) that 19- or 20-year-olds may use cocaine, it is still unacceptable that a police graduate, fresh out of the police academy, openly flaunts the law he is expected to enforce. The two scenarios are not interchangeable: society may not think much about youths using cocaine, but it is a very different matter when the same crime is committed by three police officers.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to focus only on the case in itself, without taking the broader implications on board. Politically, there appears to be consensus that our drug laws need reforming... and this event casts a spotlight on part of the reason why. Clearly, the traditional ‘strong-arm’ approach to drug offences cannot be working, when even policemen see nothing wrong with doing a little cocaine here and there. Without exculpating those officers, it is possible to argue that our national approach has been wrong from the outset. We continue to expect the police to enforce an unenforceable law, and then get shocked when they confirm its unenforceability by breaking it themselves.

All the same, it would be equally inadvisable to minimise the seriousness of the discipline implications. This was not an isolated case (nor ever is, even internationally). A number of officers had been found to be making use of drugs over the years, and there are other areas where law and disorder seem to overlap.

Regarding drugs, the police force needs to introduce, at a minimum, random spot checks at all grades. One can understand objections to the effect that honest policemen should not be tarnished by the actions of the few. Unfortunately, however, those actions have undermined public faith at a time when the Police Force has consistently been under fire over analogous ‘rule of law’ issues. Work must be done to restore confidence, and it must start with reassuring the public that the matter is being taken seriously.

It is also worth considering the setting up of a fully-independent department within the force that deals with in- ternal investigations, as is the case with the Internal Affairs divisions in US police depart- ments. The existing ‘Internal Affairs Unit’ is understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the problem: not least, because it is a small office within the Depot, and not – as it should be – an agency acting autonomously from the Corps. Moreover, such a department would need to be completely independent of internal or political influence.

Ultimately, if the force is to retain its respectability, it must start cleaning up its own house and to be seen doing so. It needs to live up to the standards expected of it, and ensure that its members are answerable for their deeds.