Perceptions of crime are ‘inversely proportional to reality’ | Saviour Formosa

A spate of violent crimes has arguably made Malta feel a lot ‘less safe’ than ever before. Yet criminologist Prof. SAVIOUR FORMOSA – who heads the CrimeMalta Observatory – argues that the very opposite is true: Malta’s crime rate has actually plummeted, in recent years

Saviour Formosa
Saviour Formosa

In MaltaToday’s latest survey, ‘criminality’ emerged as among the top five concerns of the Maltese people, for the first time ever. And yet the CrimeMalta Observatory report for 2023 suggests that (in your own words): "The figures render the islands very safe, where crimes declined from 45 crimes per 1000 persons in 2004 […] to 28 crimes per 1000 persons in 2022, the lowest on record." How do you account for this discrepancy? Are we ‘imagining’, that Malta has become more dangerous than it actually is?

Let me start with that MaltaToday survey. First of all, what it actually measured was people’s perceptions; and even then, people’s perceptions about three separate domains: criminal justice; the law courts; and criminality.

Those three domains are all connected, naturally; but they are not interchangeable. So if you lump them all together under a single headline – which refers to only one of those domains, ‘Criminality’ – the results can be misleading. For instance, if people are angry with the law-courts (and, let’s face it: many people are); in the survey, it will appear as though they are ‘angry at all three’. 

Take the recent Pelin Kaya case, for example. On that occasion, the police were at the scene of the crime, within minutes of it actually happening. They weren’t already at that location, to begin with; they had to get there, from St Julian’s. But they responded to a call; they arrived within minutes; and they took decisive action, when they got there.

Now: other people were also present, at the time… filming those police officers, while they were tasering the suspect. And when those videos were uploaded online – with the result that the footage was instantly accessible to everyone in the entire country: within literally just minutes of the crime having been committed - the comments beneath were mostly along the lines of: “Now that the police have shown themselves to be ‘up to scratch’… let’s hope the law-courts don’t mess it up!”

This is why those three domains should not be confused. Because apart from the fact that members of the Police Force were actually seen – in the Pelin Kaya case – behaving very professionally, in difficult circumstances… when it comes to perceptions, there was a parallel study published yesterday by the NSO, which shows that ‘trust in the Police Force’ has actually increased, in recent years.

But while the domain of the Police seems to be ‘finding its feet’ – largely, as a result of a transformation strategy within the Force: including the introduction of community policing; the availability of more advanced technologies; and so on – the law-courts are still clearly lagging behind. And the criminal justice system still needs to be upgraded…

If I’m understanding you correctly: when people say they are ‘concerned with crime’… they are also referring to their own private complaints about the ‘inefficiency of the law-courts’, etc.?

That is what the MaltaToday survey told me, yes. Having said that, though: it doesn’t mean that people are not, in fact, concerned about what they perceive to be an increase in crime.

It is true that surveys generally indicate that ‘concern with criminality’ has, in fact, gone up over the years.  And this is perhaps inevitable: because surveys are based on perceptions; and perceptions are inversely proportional to what is happening on the ground…

Hang on: by ‘inversely proportional’, do you mean to suggest that people’s perceptions of criminality, are not just ‘wrong’… but actually the opposite of reality?

In this case, definitely. If you look at the actual statistics, you will find that crime is on the decline in Malta. Crimes such as pick-pocketing, for instance – which spiked in Malta, a few years ago - have decreased to record lows; largely thanks to police action. The same goes for thefts from residences, and so on. Holistically, year on year, the crime rate is decreasing. I think this is the fifth consecutive year, in which there has been a decline.

Today, the statistic stands at ‘14,133 reported crimes in a year’: the lowest it’s ever been.

Still sounds like quite a lot, to me…

Well, that’s because it IS a lot. Especially when you consider that those 14,133 crimes also left victims in their wake; and some of those 14,133 crimes might have had multiple victims, not just one.

So it’s no joke, at the end of the day. And this, too, may affect public perceptions of crime. For even if the number of reported crimes is actually on the decline… crimes are still being committed; and people still fear for their own safety, as a consequence.

Meanwhile, another reason is the fact that the category we refer to as ‘petty crime’ – including pickpocketing, simple theft, damage to private property, etc. – is the one that has decreased, the most.

And as these ‘commonplace’ crimes decrease, what’s left – namely, more serious crime, of the kind that has always been there – will become more prominent, as a result. This is further compounded by the impact of certain ‘one-off’ crimes – and here, once again, the murder of Pelin Kaya remains a classic example (though it is not the only one).

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not as though I don’t understand the public reactions. It was indeed a horrible crime, by any standards: a young woman, mowed down in the prime of life, by a drug-fuelled driver, who was – by his own admission – just out looking for ‘media attention’…

As such, the reactions of shock and horror were entirely justified… when looking at that case, in isolation. At the same time, however: you cannot conclude – on the basis of that one case, alone - that ‘murder is going up, across the board’.

Because what Malta’s homicide statistics really tell us is that… let me put it this way: the murder rate varies greatly, from year to year. There was one particular year, when it stood at ‘zero’. In another, it was ‘12’; and at other times, it might be ‘six’; then ‘nine’; then down to ‘two’; etc., etc.

On average, however: Malta’s homicide rate, since 2004, has always stood at around 1.7 [per 100,000 persons].  And there has been no change to that trend, in our latest report.

But what happens is that there will be, for example, two shocking murders, both occurring within a very short time of each other: and people will understandably become… I don’t want to say ‘paranoid’; but let’s say, ‘jittery’, or ‘afraid’. 

And social media has also played a crucial role: the fact that so many crimes are now being filmed by onlookers, for instance; and that the footage itself is accessible online, instantly, at the click of a mouse…

Not only does this make those individual crimes a lot more ‘visible’, than they would otherwise have been: but people also get to see the effects of the crime itself, first-hand…

I think I can see what you’re driving at: in the Pelin Kaya video, for instance, the body of the victim herself could be seen – albeit blurred-out – just moments after having been killed….

Precisely. And this also has the effect of accentuating the sheer horror of that crime; with the inevitable result that… yes, people are certainly going to feel more ‘unsafe’, after watching that video. So it’s not really all that surprising, that these individual crimes would have such an impact on the public’s perception that ‘Malta is becoming more dangerous’, than it really is.

But how dangerous IS Malta, really, from a criminology perspective? How do you yourself interpret the raw statistics – including that ‘14,133’ figure you just mentioned?

Well: the figure of ‘14,133 crimes in one year’ is a lot lower than it used to be, up until a few years ago. More significantly, however: it is also much lower than we ourselves had predicted, in view of the rising population. Because what usually happens, when there is rapid population growth, is that there will be an expected increase – not a decrease – in reported crime.

And in fact, there are parallels with this phenomenon here, too: but only in certain areas. For example: while the crime rate has generally fallen, across Malta – despite the fact that the population has grown by 200,000, in the last 15 years - statistics show that in Gozo, crime has actually increased by 8%.

Again, however: it’s not necessarily only because ‘more crimes have been committed in Gozo’, compared to previous years. It’s also partly because the population of Gozo has increased, and become very ‘diversified’, over a relatively short period of time. And this has had the effect of more crimes actually being reported to the police, than before.

In other words, the culture of ‘omerta’ is changing. The Northwest of Malta, in general, is classed more as a ‘rural’ environment, than an ‘urban/metropolitan’ one; and Gozo, in particular, suffers from double-insularity, in this regard.  In such environments, people usually tend to take the law into their own hands: in the sense of, “You scratch my car, I’ll deflate your tyres”, and so on.

But all that is changing. Gozo’s population is now much larger, and more diverse: including Maltese and non-Maltese residents alike. People are therefore more inclined to report crimes to the police, than they used to be in the past. It could, admittedly, be because ‘locals’ are reporting ‘non-locals’, or vice-versa – even though ‘non-locals’ are themselves in the process of becoming ‘locals’, even as we speak – but whatever the case: the statistics show that more crimes are being reported in Gozo today, than previously.

And this is what we want: not that ‘more crimes happen’, of course; but that ‘people report crimes, more’. Because without crimes being reported, we would not be able to come up with ‘trends’; and the police would have nothing to actually work with, even on a tactical/strategic level…

At the same time, however: what you’re saying seems to contradict popular perceptions on other issues, apart from crime. Like the police, for instance. Earlier, you mentioned a ‘transformation’ that has taken place in the Force; but apart from the ‘new uniforms’…

That was just a cosmetic change …

Precisely: apart from such purely cosmetic changes, the police themselves have also been demanding ‘better pay’, ‘better working conditions’, etc.; and elsewhere, we hear talk of a Police Force that is totally ‘demotivated’, to the extent that senior officers are apparently ‘resigning by the truck-load’. How can any of this be possible, if – as you say – the same Police Force is also ‘finding its feet’?

That’s a very good question. But let’s see where those perceptions are actually coming from: starting with the so-called ‘Exodus’ [of senior officers].

When you look at the different departments within the Police Force, you will find that the areas which registered the highest number of departures, were mainly in the ‘high-end, financial crime’ department.

In this sector, there are banks, regulatory authorities, and private financial institutions – among other entities – all competing for the same, limited talent-pool of people. Basically, they’re all looking for candidates with the right level of professional expertise, in areas such as ‘money-laundering’, and so on… 

So the private sector is ‘poaching’ officers from the Police’s Financial Crimes Unit?

Not just the private sector – it happens between government departments, too. But yes, it happens. And that, alone, already explains quite a lot about why there are so many departures, this particular sector of the Police Force.

As for the ‘demotivation’ claim: obviously, it is true that – in an organisation which employs over 2,000 people – there will always be individual police officers who are ‘demotivated’, or ‘disgruntled’; just as there will always be employees who choose to leave the Force, from time to time. This is normal, in such a large institution.

But whoever is saying that the entire Police Force is ‘demotivated’, should really have a look at some of the surveys that have been published, as part of the ongoing transformation strategy. Because if there really is such a lack of drive, within the Police: why are so many young civilians – mostly, graduates in criminology, financial analysis, etc. – now applying for posts, that were previously only ever held by police officers?

The Forensic Unit, for example, is now ‘half-and-half’: half police officers, and half civilians. That changes a lot; so this part of the transformation strategy, at least, is clearly working.

What irks me the most, however, is when people who wield a high level of influence – such as politicians, business leaders, etc. – simply echo popular perceptions, such as ‘the Police Force is demotivated’; or ‘the crime rate is exploding’… without actually consulting any of the available scientific data on the subject.

Take the recent Parliamentary debate on crime, for example: which was, 1) childish; 2) horrendous; and 3) absurd. If there is an academic report, which states – on the basis of statistical evidence – that the crime rate is decreasing… you cannot just ignore it altogether, and argue in Parliament that the crime rate is not only ‘going up’; but that we even have a ‘plague’ [of crime]!

Now: the philosophy I myself subscribe to, as an academic, is that: if you want to make a statement, I will give you all the raw data you need; and you can work on that data, and then draw your own conclusions.

But whatever conclusions you draw: they still have to be based on the raw scientific data, if they are to have any value. Because once an influential person starts repeating all the ‘popular perceptions’, without paying any attention to the reality on the ground… that becomes ingrained in the public psyche.

And the result is ‘moral panic’. This is why so many people – even when confronted with the facts – simply refuse to ever accept those facts, which contradict their own perceptions. Not because the ‘facts are wrong’, of course; but simply because those facts do not reflect ‘how they themselves feel’…