Policing a tough gig, but internal politics makes life harder for officers

MaltaToday’s senior court reporter Matthew Agius spent weeks speaking to police officers he encounters to gain a picture of what they say is a sustained exodus of officers from the ranks

Allegations of mismanagement, nepotism, bullying and discrimination within the ranks of the police force, as well as the use of alleged illegal interrogation methods, have been strongly denied by a police spokesperson in a reply to questions sent by MaltaToday.

The allegations have been levelled against the police force by a number of serving and former police officers, who approached this news outlet in recent weeks. Their identities are being withheld, at their request.

The officers, some of whom are still serving and others who have moved on to greener pastures, spoke of what they claim is a sustained exodus of top police officers from the police force.

“You have nepotism, sycophancy, and then you have those people who get in trouble but always come out smelling of roses,” is how one inspector described the internal situation to the MaltaToday, explaining that reaching out to the media was a last-ditch effort to bring public scrutiny on the “serious mismanagement” in the force which, the inspector said, is leading to an exodus of experienced officers.

Nepotism accusations

Several officers independently raised this complaint. As one of them put it, in order to thrive in the police force, “unless born under a lucky star, you either need to have someone who keeps you in the top brass’ good books, or snitch to the Commissioner.”

“This culture of nepotism didn’t start with Gafá. It has been a long time coming and can be traced as far back as George Grech [who was police commissioner from 1992–2001],” another said.

Despite the introduction of the Whistleblower Act, which officers say helped eliminate the more blatant instances of nepotism from the force, speaking up still risked whistleblowers being transferred or victimised. “It’s like picking a fight with your own family,” one inspector said.

Every commissioner has his “pet units”, one officer explained. “For this one it is the Financial Crime Investigation Department (FCID),” they said of the recently revamped economic crimes unit. “But officers are still quitting FCID in their droves,” he said. “Only about 10 or 15 are left of the original 30.”

Amongst new Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) introduced by Gafá, newly recruited police officers spend time at a district before they can move to a specialised branch. “But there are people who skipped this step. Some people joined the police, were stationed in a district, didn’t like it and made a few phone calls. Next thing you know, they’re transferred to a branch. Branch are untouchables,” said the officer, claiming that such transfers were being made in violation of SOPs.

“I can’t understand how the commissioner put his own wife in charge of the Victim Support Unit. She’s a very good officer and a hard worker, but there was no call for applications. She enjoys better pay and conditions than other inspectors, even though she is still an inspector.”

It was also pointed out that Gafá’s previous post – Police CEO – was scrapped after he was appointed Commissioner of Police, being changed to Director General, and commanding a lower salary, the allegation being that the role had been tailor-made for Gafá. “When he goes to the press and says that he doesn’t look at faces, I don’t believe it. I think he has a lot of faces to look at, actually,” said the officer, who also claimed that no internal audits are carried out.

‘Massive mismanagement’

“There is massive mismanagement,” the officer said. “Gafá sold his transformation strategy to the government but the grassroots are not seeing any changes. There are plenty of nice bombastic words, but it does not reflect the reality of the massive turnover of police officers. I’m not just talking about old sweats; you have new inspectors joining and then leaving immediately.”

Another common complaint is that the manning strength of different branches of the police force do not reflect their workload. “At most there are 10 murders in a year in Malta and these are dealt with by three inspectors at the Homicide Squad. But then the domestic violence unit, which deals with hundreds of cases a month, is manned by the same number.”

“But then, if you make a mistake you will be taken before a disciplinary board and your reputation will be ruined,” said one inspector, adding that orders from above to prioritise certain tasks over others lead to lower ranks running the risk of disciplinary action. “Such orders could range from something related to a statement made by Peppi Azzopardi on TV, or a request from someone with connections to the minister. If you succeed, they take the credit and if you fail you get the blame.”

“When long-simmering issues become public, then they try to find scapegoats,” another officer said.

Work environment

Both major political parties, while in government, had approved extensive refurbishment at police HQ at taxpayers’ expense, but they neglected the police stations, officers say.

The refurbishment focused on the old front part of the Police Force’s Floriana HQ. The rest of it, which was built in 2000, officers say, needs attention, in particular to combat rising damp. “So in truth, the refurbishment did not benefit the majority of the workers, in fact it did not even benefit the majority of workers at Depot.” Other minor complaints dealt with the absence of showers, the absence of WiFi coverage and a lack of privacy – “you can hear entire conversations through the gypsum ceiling,” one officer said.

The officer highlighted the state of the art building constructed for the police’s anti-terrorism unit. Right next to it, he said, workers at the police garage were working out of shipping containers.

Pay issues

A common theme amongst those leaving the force is that they are fed up with the increasing workload, decreasing manpower, work environment and uncompetitive salary. “Every other disciplined force in Malta is paid better than the police, even prison guards and local wardens,” one officer complained.

There appears to be a glimmer of hope on the salary front, however. Police spokesperson Brandon Pisani told MaltaToday that better employment conditions were currently in the process of being negotiated and internal systems were also being updated.

Technical problems and HR privacy

The police forces’ internal database, MPS, was “dated and not user friendly”, officers complain, adding that neither is it updated in real time. MPS is not linked to the government E-ID database, leaving its users with access to the police database alone, at the mercy of updates which, they said, are rarely timely.

As part of an efficiency drive championed by Gafá, a centralised staffing branch had been created to detail officers to tasks, a job previously carried out by the local police major. Officers detailed to district stations, however, have complained that the new system has simply bled more workers from the district. “40 people are now doing the same work which used to be carried out by around 10 district police officers. If you have a working system, why not fix any shortcomings and continue with it?” one district inspector said, adding that the change had simply created another stressor and “eliminated privacy in sensitive cases requiring urgent leave.”

The new setup appears to do nothing to tackle overtime abuse, however. “Overtime abuse happened in the past, continues to happen and will continue to happen, because if you have a friend in your district who is later transferred to the staffing section, you can call in favours.”

Asked about this, police spokesperson Brandon Pisani said that the creation of the Staffing & Major Events Unit (SME) was intended to provide a more effective, efficient, transparent, and fair system for assigning duties. “Through this centralised system attention is also being given for our officers to be detailed with decent working hours, ensuring adequate rest periods, even during massive back-to-back commitments such as the general election and the visit by Pope Francis. Through this system, as already mentioned, payments for any performed extra/overtime duties are also being paid in a more expedient way.”

“All the mentioned measures were positively welcomed by our officers and praised by the Auditor General,”  Pisani said, quoting from the introduction to the Auditor General’s 2020 report, which praised the introduction of new reforms “comprising of centralisation of detail officers and process automation, the launch of an anti-corruption policy and anonymous reporting system, immediate payment to officers for extra duty, the set-up of an internal audit unit, as well as capping of voluntary supplementary duties.”

That report, however, had also highlighted ineffective processes in relation to allowances, shortcomings in the upkeep of records and flagged an absence of systematic and periodic reviews of the allowances paid to employees by HR. The Auditor General had also noted errors in the records provided for audit purposes, “namely the daily duty rosters, the monthly returns, sick and vacation leave records, imply that adequate verifications were not carried out prior to the certifications of the monthly returns by higher levels of authority.”

In explanatory comments, which were included in the 2020 report, the Malta Police Force had said that since mid-2020, it had deployed a team of officers to carry out random onsite visits and ensure that the workforce is deployed as stated in the detail sheet, “ensuring compliance where time and attendance are concerned and help identify instances of unofficial swapping which may occur.”

“Civilianisation strategy” aimed at replacing experienced officers lost to private sector

Pisani said that various factors were causing a “brain drain” from the force, in particular the FCID.

“Our officers within the Financial Crime Investigations Department are specialised in their respective areas in line with today’s challenges. Their particular skills make them particularly attractive to other entities within this sector, particularly the private sector. This is also the reality in other sections, as the Police Force is not alien to the effect of economic growth and low unemployment, which brought new challenges for public and private organisations when recruiting people.”

Pisani said that a large group of officers who joined after a 1996 recruitment drive are also now completing their contractual 25 years of service and are choosing to retire.

“It is envisaged that this trend would be reversed during the next three years. However, apart from constant yearly recruitment of new police officers, in line with our civilianisation strategy, during the last two years we registered an increase of 54 civilians working as scene-of-crime officers, HR officers, and financial analysts within the FCID, amongst others.”

Staffing challenges are also faced by international law enforcement agencies, Pisani said, adding that in spite of this “a more effective service, both in front-line policing,

including crime prevention, and also in specialised investigations such as financial crime and domestic abuse investigations” is being provided.

“Also, in line with the MPF’s five-year strategy, we placed greater emphasis on police visibility, mainly with the introduction of the Community Policing, which now covers 75% of the island. By the end of 2023 all the Maltese islands will be covered by Community Policing as well. It must also be remarked that the first six months of this year have registered a 4% crime reduction when compared to the same period last year.”

“Work conditions have improved, will improve further”

“Certainly, work conditions play a crucial role in an organisation,” Pisani said.

“Besides improving the extra-duty rate, as a result of decisions taken over the past months, our officers are being paid for extra-duty and overtime duties worked within two months, contrary to the past years when officers were paid months and sometimes years after the extra-duty. Also, we are working to ensure better working conditions for our officers, through the next collective agreement, as the present one will expire during 2023.”

Internal politics likened to abusive relationship

One former inspector spoke of being disillusioned by the force’s internal politics.“It was something I had always dreamed of, I wanted to do what’s right and help people. But after you join you find that things are very different to expectations and the thing that you loved turns into something you resent. I compare it to an abusive relationship, where you love someone and they keep giving you the worst, but you keep coming back.”

“Your job is basically to cover your arse in most sections,” the ex-police inspector said. “I had people tell me ‘look it’s Sunday, don’t invent work’.”

Rampant bullying, backstabbing and political discrimination are other serious claims made by some of the officers spoken while researching this article. “If you’re new, female, gay, hold different politics to the majority, these are all going to influence how you’re treated on the job,” one said.

“If you lay on your back and spread your legs, you’re going to get more respect than someone who doesn’t. If you don’t, you’re described as aloof and lied about. That’s the way it is, if you’re easy you’re going to get ahead.”

“Even in discussions about whether or not to arraign a suspect, if you stand your ground… you get described as insubordinate... Covering your arse becomes the order of the day. It’s like you’re thrown in the middle of the sea and left to fend for yourself. When the shit hits the fan there is no debriefing to see what lessons are learned, only accusations aimed at you.”

Struggling to reconcile their orders with their conscience

In conversations with the former officers, a disconnect emerged between what police officers are taught at the academy and what actually happens in practice. This, they said, caused them internal turmoil on occasions where their experiences did not correspond with their training or their conscience. “You’re taught certain things and are trying to follow the law and your moral convictions to do your job right and then see your superiors going contrary to everything you had been taught.”

Some whistleblowers made serious allegations about the interrogation methods used during questioning, saying these included sleep deprivation, the use of constantly flickering lights, or leaving lights on all night. “Psychological bullying is sometimes used in interrogations,” one former officer told MaltaToday. “The law says you are permitted to use schemes and stratagems during interrogations, but they were using psychological bullying to get people to talk.” Studies show that such interrogation methods lead to false confessions, the officer added.

“I guarantee to you that there are people in prison who did not do what they were accused of, but confessed just to bring their interrogation to an end,” said another. “If you are accompanied by a lawyer, everything is done according to procedure and your human rights are respected, but if not, you have no guarantees.”

In an emailed reply to questions about the issues highlighted by the whistleblowers, the Police Force’s official spokesperson Brandon Pisani said that the Force did not employ these interrogation methods.  “We are also not aware of any instances of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ Investigations and interrogations are done within the established law and procedures, also subject to checks and balances by the Independent Police Complaints Board,” Pisani said.

Political interference

More worrying is the suggestion of political interference in certain high-profile investigations. This was the final straw for more than one of the former police officers who had decided to speak out.

One described an incident in which an inspector had been summoned to a senior officer’s office to discuss a politically sensitive case file, only to find a ministry official waiting in the office. The ministry official had then allegedly threatened the investigator, with the full support of the senior police officer, if the inspector continued with the investigation.

“If this happened anywhere else in the world, senior police officers would be forced to resign. Top level Metropolitan Police officials have had to resign over much less serious issues.”

Confronted with this allegation, the police denied any ministerial interference in the exercise of the force’s duties or the use of illegal practices in interrogations.

“[The Malta Police Force] conducts its investigations independently without any undue interference, whatsoever,” the spokesman said.

Buck stops with the government, officers say

The individuals who reached out to this paper said they were doing so “in the hope that an article will ruffle some feathers and spur some movement” on the part of the “higher ups” and help the government and ministry “understand that the picture isn’t as rosy as the Commissioner is painting it.”

Most of the officers spoken to, however, stressed that the responsibility for the demoralised state of the police force was not just Gafá’s, but ultimately that of the government, which they accuse of having failed to address the need for increased financial and human resources to be allocated to the police.

“Problems like these need to be nipped in the bud. Everyone knows about the problems but everyone is afraid of addressing them,” one officer said. “I don’t feel the people trust the police anymore. There is respect, but not trust.”