Balance, not burnout – the highlight of 26 years as a criminal investigator

Assistant Police Commissioner Pierre Calleja talks about the ups and downs – the dedication and the necessary sacrifices – of a career investigator in the 199-year-old Malta Police Force

Assistant Police Commissioner Pierre Callega.
Assistant Police Commissioner Pierre Callega.

"I've tried imagining myself doing things other than investigating crime but I doubt I'd manage", Assistant Police Commissioner Pierre Calleja laughs as he pulls two chairs around a table for our scheduled interview.

At 49 years of age, Calleja has spent half his life working at the Criminal Investigations Department. Having joined the force at 23 as a constable, he spent his first four years in the forensic section and as a district police officer. After a brief stint in the traffic section, he was transferred to the CID, where today he occupies the role of assistant commissioner.

However life at the CID is not a bed of roses. "There were times when I requested to be relieved from the CID, but my requests were always thrown out of the window", he says.

Through his years at the department, Calleja has witnessed a lot of changes - not only to the force, but even in his section. Legal amendments led to changes in methodology and approach. "We have to keep abreast of a constantly changing world. A world which at times spins too fast and you need to keep up."

The work of the police, more than that of investigators, is a constant learning curve. "There's always more to do. You never stop and cannot afford to either. New crimes bring new issues, which need new solutions. New realities in policing bring with them new priorities." However the basic work of the CID has remained unchanged, and the foundations of investigating serious criminal offences are left unaffected by the passage of time.

"Whilst we are barred by legal parameters, criminals know no boundaries. Our work and equipment are controlled through a priority budget, however crooks have access to easy money and have nothing to answer for unless caught."

Looking back on his years of service, Calleja chooses not to pick any career highlight. His main satisfaction is that through his lengthy tour of duty, he has managed to keep things balanced. "People tend to burn themselves out. After a long time in the same place ideas run dry and one could find oneself lacking in motivation." Calleja, on the contrary, has managed to keep his wits about him and kept going.

Pierre Calleja was one of the senior officers behind the creation of the Rapid Intervention Unit, he affirms with satisfaction. The merger itself was no major issue, however it left a number of officers visibly frustrated. Reacting to an interview of two former SAG officers which ran in last Wednesday's edition of MaltaToday, Calleja says they have a right to their opinion, "However I disagree and abhor the 'it will always be us and them' attitude".

He explained how the unit brings together the specialisations of two previously separate squads. "The birth of the RIU was studied before it materialised. The SAG had expertise in weapons, VIP protection and riot control. The Mobile Squad were equally expert in rapid response and faced different scenarios daily. All this knowledge is now pooled within the RIU."

Experience showed, for example, that in particular scenarios, rapid response by officers armed simply with a sidearm was not enough. Using the HSBC hold-up as a study, Calleja states that there was no time to scramble together an SAG unit. "Time is of the essence, and now we have these men out patrolling streets, putting them where they're needed faster." He went on to say that in time all RIU officers will be proficient in all skills. Former SAG staff will be trained in rapid response, while former Mobile Squad officers will be trained in VIP protection and firearms. Individuals will be selected from the RIU and given additional training akin to that of American SWAT teams. "This will result in a roaming SWAT team with a very short response time, as all members and equipment will be already out on the streets."

The creation of the RIU has seen the island being split into smaller zones; and the arrival of an additional 11 patrol vehicles has raised the number of RIU cars to 31.

There are 158 officers employed on the new shift - a shift tailor-made to suit the needs of a rapid response unit. The force envisages increasing the number of officers in time.

Looking out from the AC's office window, I see that the yard below is packed with displays portraying police life through the ages. The police force celebrated its 199th anniversary last week, and Calleja expresses his wish to see more dedicated people filling the police ranks. "One needs to realise this is a career, not just a job. It's not a moneymaking machine and calls for sacrifices. Dedication should be highlighted at the selection phase and not expected to grow on officers."

Policing and family life can walk hand in hand, "but it depend on how well you mix them", Calleja jokes. Officers tend to work long, unforgiving hours, which can take their toll in close relationships and families. "Then again, the traditional cast of the family has changed. Today women go out to work, and late hours happen in every job." Nevertheless the AC reiterates that police work, unlike other, 'normal jobs', carries risks, as officers are always dealing with society's dark side. An officer can take home the joys and satisfaction of a solved case, the sadness of an unsolved one, the anxiety of stalled progress and the frustration of knowing who a perpetrator is but lacking the evidence to convict him. This can have an impact on family life and personal relationships.

Flipping through photos gathered over his 26 years with the force, Calleja chatted to me about the people by his side. Court experts, crime scene investigators, VIPs, victims and survivors pepper the images. "The Criminal Investigations Department is the heart of any police force. You cannot have an effective force, aimed at crime prevention and investigation, without it."

Commenting on the experience and knowledge the unit boasts in criminal investigations, Calleja says that cases are solved with a lot of work. District officers and members of the CID cooperate towards a shared goal: what counts is bringing offenders to justice in the shortest possible time.

Whilst being mainly a reactive unit, the CID insists on a proactive stance. It adopts situational crime preventive measures over target areas - summer beach patrols being a prime example. As people flock to the beaches, beach crime rises, and the beach patrol attempts to clamp down on it.

Calleja reminisces about a time when the CID worked more integrally with the district police. Around 1991, six CID officers began working at police stations. Each was responsible for criminal investigations in his particular zones or districts. Whilst the daily work was still performed by district police, aggravated crime could be addressed with more focus and specificity. "This boosted the camaraderie between the CID and the district police, who worked jointly to solve cases. But for some reason the idea was abandoned."

The AC can't help commenting about the motorbike helmet at my side. An avid motorbike enthusiast himself, he describes being out on his bike.

"The feeling of freedom away from the daily routine is simply amazing. The bike takes me away from it all and puts me in a serene mood. I wish I could think and plan my retirement, but it seems that's still a long way off."

Calleja is clearly seized by thoughts of distant-future hours tinkering in his garage with big boys' toys... bikes, not guns.

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I have had the honor and the privelage to work with Mr. Calleja some years ago. He is a living example to all Police officers as to what commitment and integrity should be. I wish him the best for the future and many more successful years in the force.