Justice has to be done with policemen, too | Neville Mercieca

The Malta Police Union has come out strongly against the Attorney General’s decision to drop all attempted homicide charges against Darren Debono (aka It-Topo), in exchange for a guilty plea in the 2010 HSBC heist case.  MPU president NEVILLE MERCIECA explains why this was a ‘slap in the face’ of an already demoralised Police Force

Alex Schembri. Photo: James Bianchi/Mediatoday
Alex Schembri. Photo: James Bianchi/Mediatoday

Last January, Darren Debono was sentenced to 10-and-a-half years for the 2010 Qormi bank-robbery; but as a result of a plea-bargaining agreement, he will not face any charges for the attempted murder of several police officers during the subsequent shoot-out. The MPU has now filed a judicial protest calling for the AG’s resignation; but on what grounds, exactly? Isn’t it the AG’s legal prerogative, to resort to plea-bargaining in such cases?

What we are questioning here is not the legal remit of the Attorney General – or the Police Commissioner, or anyone else – to resort to plea-bargaining, as a tool in the judicial process. There is no doubt that they have the full autonomy to take whatever decisions they seem fit; and as a rule, we never react to such decisions.

This is, in fact, the first time the Union has ever issued a statement with regard to this kind of decision; and we hope it is something that we will never have to do again.  Because if so, it would be a clear signal that something is very wrong with the system…

Another thing I want to make clear is that, as the Malta Police Union, it is not our business to get involved in criminal cases. We are not interested in ‘ensuring that criminals get the justice they deserve’: for that, there is the Police Force, and the law-courts… and even if we are, ourselves, policemen; I am here only to speak on behalf of the Union.

And this is why we felt we had to make an exception, in this particular case. Because, as the Malta Police Union, it IS our business to ensure that justice is done – and is seen to be done – with our own members.

So even if the AG has every right to enter into plea-bargaining agreements – and so too, by the way, does the person requesting the agreement; I wouldn’t want anyone to think we are against the defendant availing of his or her rights, under law: in this, or any other case – we nonetheless feel that it was the wrong decision to take. After all, the AG had other options at her disposal. She could, for instance, have offered a Presidential pardon…

What difference would that have made, though? Wouldn’t it still result in the defendant getting off scot-free?

There is a difference. For one thing, the way it usually works is that the defendant first goes through all the processes of a legal trial. Then – in the event of a guilty verdict – he or she may be offered a pardon; as has happened in other cases. The important thing, however, is that there would at least have been a proper legal process, leading to a verdict: ‘guilty’, ‘not guilty’… whatever the court decides.

What we cannot accept, however, is that there is no judicial process whatsoever. As if the whole incident just ‘never even happened at all’…

Another difference is that a Presidential pardon normally comes with conditions attached; so that at least, if the person concerned fails to abide by those conditions… there would be consequences.

In this case, however: the charges against the defendant were entirely dropped, without any consequences at all. And this means that he [it-Topo] was never tried for the crime of attempted murder, in a court of law; and he can never be tried for the same crime again, either. As such, the State has no more tools at its disposal, in this case.

So with the AG’s decision, the case has simply been closed: without any trial, without a verdict having been reached; and without justice having been served.

And bear in mind that we are talking about here is a very serious crime. It’s not as though this person was charged with ‘causing a disturbance in public’; or ‘damaging a car’, or ‘getting involved in a brawl’, or anything like that. He was charged with ‘opening fire on several police officers, in their line of duty’. And as far as I know: there has never been a case as serious as this, where the charges were simply dropped, just like that.

But the Presidential pardon was only one of the other options that could have been considered. Even if we concede that plea-bargaining was a valid tool to use, in this instance… why drop THAT charge, of all the ones on the charge-sheet? Because I imagine there would have been quite a few other charges, in a case like this. I don’t have access to the charge-sheet myself, so I can’t tell you exactly what the others were…

I think it’s safe to say that ‘armed robbery’ would have been one; as well as all the usual minor charges… ‘conspiracy to commit a crime’, ‘unlawful firearms possession’, etc.

Precisely. So my point is: if the intention was to reach a plea-bargain, in order to get the defendant to testify in another case; or plead guilty on another charge… there were other, less serious charges they could have used as bargaining-chips instead. But no: they dropped the most serious charge on the charge-sheet: the one which literally put the lives of police officers most at risk… and what sort of message does that send, to the policemen who risked their own lives – and the lives of their colleagues – to bring that person to trial in the first place?

So far, you have very clearly explained why the Malta Police Union was so incensed this decision; but – to return to my original question – does that really add up to a resignation matter? Isn’t it more a case that you yourself disagree with that decision, for ‘personal’ – albeit entirely understandable -reasons?

There is nothing ‘personal’ about it…

I meant it only in the sense that the MPU represents the Police Force, and this was a crime against the police…

Even so: the reasons we are calling for the AG’s resignation have nothing to do with the person occupying the role. We would be saying exactly the same for any other individual; or even any other office, if the decision had been taken at another level.

It is simply because we that we think that the decision itself was a grave mistake, which will have serious consequences in future. And if we’re asking the AG to resign, it’s because there is no other way to remedy the situation. You cannot ask for ‘compensation’, in a case like this…

But I feel I have to stress that… what we are asking for, is the AG to resign. We are not asking for her to removed from office: by the minister, or anyone else. We understand that the AG has security of tenure; and can only be removed by two-thirds Parliamentary majority. And we agree with all this, because the Attorney General is an important office in the country.

But it was the Attorney General who took this decision; so we feel that the only way for responsibility to be shouldered, in this case, is for the same Attorney General to now take the decision to resign…

Meanwhile, there have also been calls – not coming from the MPU, this time - for the resignation of Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa. Let’s just say that some people are not satisfied with the pace of improvement within the Police Force, in the two years since he took over.  Isn’t it true that – after all the fanfare with which he was heralded, as the ‘man who would restore public confidence in the Force’ – Gafa has been something of a disappointment, ever since?

It could well be that some people see it that way, because – let’s face it – the expectations were very high.  Where most people are expected to deliver ‘100’, the Commissioner was given a target of ‘2000’…  and when he reached ‘98’, we criticized him for ‘not delivering enough’.

Now: I can’t comment on how much he has actually delivered, when it comes to ‘restoring confidence in the Force’: not because I have no interest in the matter – obviously, both as a policeman, and as a citizen, I would like to see the public served by a better, more effective Police Force. But on behalf of the Union, my concern is with the Force’s conditions of work; because I believe that, in order to deliver a better service, the individual police officers need to be ‘content’ in their work.

To put that another way: the general public might not be interested in the Police’s salary, or work conditions. What they want – quite rightly – is that when they have need of the police, they find that (at minimum) the police stations are open. My concern, however, is that those police stations should be ‘open’, not just for the sake of it... but because the police officers manning them, are enthusiastic about doing their job.

And from that perspective, what I can say is that there have been a lot of changes in the past two years: in terms of policy; work practices; shifts, and work hours; the rules governing things like ‘extra duty’, and so on… basically, things which are invisible to the general public; but which do make a significant difference, from our perspective.

Obviously, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t still problems. Police morale, for instance, still remains low… in fact, I would even say that it has deteriorated, in the 23 years I have been in the Corps. But I do feel that, when it comes to the performance of the Police Commissioner, people expected ‘too much, too quickly’.

I’m not saying they are wrong to feel that way: but these expectations were never very realistic, to begin with: especially when you consider that some of the individual criminal cases - that some people expect to be ‘solved’, literally from one day to the next - are not exactly simple and straight-forward…

You seem to be suggesting that these ‘unrealistic public expectations’ are not limited only to Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa himself, but extended to the Police Force as a whole. Is that correct? And if so, is it part of what is causing police morale to decline?

Well… to be honest, there has always been a certain amount of ‘grumbling’ within the Police Force. When I first joined the Union, for instance, it was during the time of [former Commissioner] John Rizzo. Back then, the issues were actually much more serious, than they are today. We were fighting for some of the most basic workers’ rights, in fact.

So things have certainly improved since then; and some of that improvement has been reflected in the Police’s community relations. The establishment of ‘Community Policing Teams’ – even if only in a few localities, so far – has already made a difference. All in all, I would say that the service provided by the Police to the community has, in fact, improved a lot in recent years.

But to answer your question: yes, up to a point. Today, policemen feel almost as though they have become a ‘machine’, expected to perform at all times, and at all costs. Now: I have to be careful how to say this, because – as a Union – we understand the importance of being able to rely on a prompt and efficient Police force. It is, after all, a service paid for by the tax-payer (including myself, first and foremost).

But it doesn’t mean that policemen should be expected to perform, beyond all reasonable limits. When people call the police, for instance… they expect that a policeman will turn up on the spot, in just a few moments. But to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’… policemen need a car. They are also required, by law, to equip a ‘body-cam’; but there aren’t enough body-cams to go round, which in practice means that they have to drive from (for instance) Swieqi to St Julian’s, to pick one up; only to then drive back to Swieqi, to attend to the original call.

Or, even worse, if they are stationed on Comino… they have to first go to Rabat, Gozo, to pick up the body-cam; and then, when their shift is over, they have to go all the way back to Rabat – in their own time, and in their own car – to take it back.

On a separate note: police also need air-conditioning in the work-place – among other basic necessities - if they are expected to perform 100%, from start to finish of a 12-hour shift.

Now: I admit that these concerns (and I could mention many more) may not seem all that important, to the man in the street. And in case I am being misunderstood: I am not suggesting that they should be used as an excuse to justify ‘under-performance’ by the police, either. It doesn’t mean that the police should be content to deliver only 80, or 70%...

What we are saying, however, is that we do have to address these very basic, work-place problems first… before we can ever talk about the police delivering the ‘100%’ (if not 110%) that is expected of them.