Police bodycams were switched off during Aidan Bartolo arrest in Mellieha, court hears

An incident in which armed police officers opened fire on a motorist who allegedly tried to run them over was not captured by the officers’ bodycams as they had been switched off for tactical reasons, a court has been told by police officers involved in the arrest

Aidan Bartolo (left) was arrested by Maltese police in the Miżieb woodland
Aidan Bartolo (left) was arrested by Maltese police in the Miżieb woodland

An incident in which armed police officers opened fire on a motorist who allegedly tried to run them over was not captured by the officers’ bodycams as they had been switched off for tactical reasons, a court has been told by police officers involved in the arrest.

56 shots were fired at a Mazda Demio being driven by 24-year-old Aiden Bartolo of Ghaxaq before he was arrested on 2 December, magistrate Gabriella Vella was told today, as officers involved in the operation testified as the compilation of evidence against him continued on Wednesday.

Bartolo stands accused of attempted murder, attempted grievous bodily harm, injuring police officers, dangerous driving, disobeying police orders and relapsing. He denies the charges.

He had been pulled over on 2 December by the police on suspicion of drug trafficking but had then reversed into two officers before driving off. Police officers then opened fire on his car, wounding him in the leg, but Bartolo still managed to escape. He was later found at Mizieb after a six-hour manhunt.

Police Inspector Marshall Mallia testified this afternoon, giving an account of Bartolo’s arrest. Uniformed RIU officers had stopped the car by blocking the road with police cars, he said. Two civilian vehicles had stopped ahead of Bartolo’s Mazda. More police cars approached from behind, and at that moment, Bartolo drove forwards, hitting the civilian vehicles, and then reversed into two police officers, Mallia said. “Shots were then fired.”

The accused had then driven off towards the Mellieha bypass, against the direction of traffic. The police had chased him in their vehicles, and shortly afterwards, the suspect’s car was found abandoned at Mizieb. Bartolo was arrested by an RIU inspector after a large-scale manhunt was launched, he said.

Mallia said he had arrived at the scene around a minute after Bartolo’s arrest, reading him his rights and taking him into custody. A magisterial inquiry was appointed, and an ambulance was present as a precaution, added the inspector.

Bartolo’s vehicle was found at the side of the road, locked, he said. Statements were taken by the inspector together with Inspector Alfredo Mangion. Bartolo said nothing to the police in the statements, he added.

Cross-examined by lawyer Franco Debono, the inspector confirmed that no drugs or weapons had been found in the car or in the accused’s possession. Debono asked whether the police had followed protocol in opening fire on the vehicle, but the inspector said this was part of the RIU’s operation and the officer in charge of it should testify about this.

“I thought it was an army training exercise” – eyewitness.

A motorist who had been driving in the area at the time also testified today, telling the court that he had been waiting on the roundabout when he heard gunshots. He had lain down in his pickup truck to avoid being hit, he said. His vehicle had been damaged by Bartolo’s car as the accused had tried to escape. “I heard the police shouting ‘stop, stop’ and the other car not stopping,” he said, adding that police officers then ordered him not to move.

Asked whether he recognised anyone in the courtroom, he said he had been lying down and had seen nothing of the car which didn’t stop. “When I saw the police in front of me, I was more concerned about them,” he said.

Debono asked him how many shots he had heard. “Many. I didn’t know if they were blanks…because two days before, there had been a training exercise at Mizieb.”

“So you heard a great many shots, so much that you thought it was an army exercise. No further questions.” Debono said.

The RIU inspector in charge of the operation took the stand next. The court imposed a ban on the publication of his name due to the nature of his work.

The RIU inspector told the court that he had received instructions to stop the accused in his Mazda Demio which had been spotted near Popeye Village and had therefore coordinated with other police units to block the road.

As Bartolo’s car approached the roadblock, the inspector had approached the car, shouting, “police! Stop! Stop!” he said. It was at that moment that the Mazda moved forward in a bid to escape, explained the witness, adding that he had fired shots at the accused’s driver side rear tyre before the car collided with another vehicle. The car did not stop and so he had fired more shots at the rear tyre as the car manoeuvred to escape. The Mazda hit a van in the process. More shots were fired at the rear tyre, and the car jammed itself into the van before reversing and driving in the direction of the roundabout, ignoring police orders to stop. The suspect vehicle drove into oncoming traffic, he said.

The witness jumped into his police car and drove off in pursuit, spotting the Mazda at Mizieb. He radioed the position to his colleagues but was later told that it had been found abandoned. The search for the accused had lasted till around 1 am, he said.

Under cross-examination by Debono, the witness confirmed that he was the officer in charge of the operation. Debono asked how the police had planned to stop the car.

“When it’s a two-lane road, we prefer to use two cars to block the road,” the witness replied. Debono suggested that Bartolo, therefore, needed to shunt two police cars out of the way to carry on. The witness agreed.

Police “opened fire to save colleague” -RIU Inspector

Debono asked about the shooting, querying whether it was normal to open fire to stop a vehicle.

“I didn’t fire to stop the car, I saw my colleague about to be run over, and I shot at the tyre to slow him down,” the officer said.

He insisted that shots were fired not because Bartolo had failed to stop but because he was going to run over a police officer. “We were prepared for every eventuality…he had two options: either he drive into the police car or run over the officer, and he seemed to be going for the second option.”

“We prepared for the eventuality that he didn’t stop; we positioned the vehicles for it,” he said.

Nine police officers were involved in the operation, of which 7 fired their weapons, he said, answering another question by Debono. The magistrate reminded the defence at this point that the police were not being accused of wrongdoing in these proceedings.

Debono moved onto another line of questioning, asking whether bodycams, which are now standard police issue, were used in operation.

The bodycams had not been used as they could not be fitted onto the officers’ body armour, said the witness, adding that they could be attached to helmets, but said that the mounts were still being procured.

Bodycams were not used for tactical reasons, inspector says

The RIU inspector confirmed that 56 shots were fired in all during the operation.

Answering another question by the defence lawyer, he told the court that there was an internal police circular, issued in 1995 and amended in 2012, on the use of firearms and rules of engagement and that the officers involved were all firearms trained.

Inspector Mallia re-examined the witness, asking whether the police had jumped out of the way as they were about to be run over. “Was there a threat to your life at that time?” he asked. “Yes, there was,” replied the RIU inspector.

Debono asked Mallia whether he had been wearing a bodycam during the operation. The inspector replied that he had been wearing one, but that it had not been switched on. The other drugs squad officers had not worn it as they had been undercover and the camera unit’s red light would have given their positions away, he said.

The case continues.