May the Force be… | Carmelo Abela

Safety and security, migration and the police force were among 2015’s main talking points and MaltaToday spoke to home affairs minister Carmelo Abela about his plans for the new year

The year coming to an end has been busy for Carmelo Abela: the mild mannered, recently-appointed Home Affairs Minister who bears a (very vague) resemblance to a leaner Clark Kent.

Interestingly enough, it’s been almost one year since I last interviewed him on (almost) the same spot. Back then, he had only just been appointed minister, and all questions were in future tense. Today, there is much to look back on over the last 12 months: not all particularly rosy for his ministry. 

It was a year which – among many other things – revealed the extent of a gaping chasm between ‘legislation’ and ‘enforcement’ in a number of areas. Take the recent accident in Paceville, for instance – in which over 70 were hospitalised after a stampede in a crowded nightclub. 

It seemed to reinforce widespread perceptions of a lax approach to health and safety issues in public places (by no means limited only to Paceville). It also confirmed the presence of large numbers of minors below the age of 17 at an adult-only club: another area where the law seems to be routinely disregarded.

Separately, a similar message was imparted last month, when a tiger seriously injured a small child at the unlicensed Montekristo Zoo. Safety precautions were likewise far from satisfactory, but in this instance the zoo itself was illegal… though it has operated freely for years.

To keep things brief: it is difficult to escape the impression that law enforcement – a primary responsibility of Camelo Abela’s ministry – is somewhat haphazardly applied in this country. How does the minister account for this? 

“I’d rather not go into either incident in itself, as there are ongoing magisterial inquiries into both,” he begins. “But it is true that they have highlighted a number of issues.”

We agree to stick to Paceville for the time being. Even without this latest fracas, it has long been observed that Paceville itself has undergone a radical character transformation in recent years. Yet for all these developments, it seems our approach to issues such as enforcement remain unchanged in any detail… we still respond to predictable tragedies only with hindsight, when the laws designed to prevent such accidents have all along been flouted.

“There is a certain ‘laizzez-faire’ attitude, I think we can  agree on that,” he nods. “We know that, by law, under 17-year-olds are not allowed in nightclubs. But proper checks are not taking place, it seems. I don’t think it’s fair to generalise, because there are definitely people who care about this issue. But broadly speaking, it can be felt. The incident also highlighted a number of issues that we perhaps take for granted. The level of preparedness of staff at any place of work – not only in nightclubs; even offices – for accidents or emergencies. Are we prepared for such situations? That is something we have to look into: what might happen, and what our reaction will be when it happens.”

In the shorter term, however, there are steps that have to be taken. “Other issues are perceived more to be the responsibility of the government of the day: such as legislation. Do we have good laws? Are they clear enough in terms of responsibility to be borne in such cases? There is also the issue of enforcement. Not just in terms of reacting to events, but also in terms of prevention.”

Even now, however, we are both talking about this accident in retroactive terms. Abela himself argues that we need to be more proactive; why, then, does it always have to take a calamity to force us to take necessary action?

He however rebuts the ‘retroactive’ part. “Even before this incident occurred, Cabinet – and even this ministry – was already discussing some of the relevant issues. First and foremost, the issue of permits. In our legislation, we have permits issued by the police, the Malta Tourism Authority, local councils, etc… I think we need to put our house in order when it comes to who issues permits, and all the conditions that go with it.”

This raises a separate issue. In this confusion regarding which authority is actually responsible for licensing events… it has been noticed that very different conditions come into play, depending on whether it is the police, the Tourism Authority or whatnot. The obvious example would be the Paqpaqli Ghall-Istrina accident, where it emerged that the permit conditions were considerably laxer than those usually applied for motoring events. 

Why the two weights, two measures?

“That is why we need to look into the issue more deeply. You might have a one-off event, and the police come up with a list of requirements… and then, for another event, maybe the permit will be issued by the local councils; and the conditions will be different. There may be different conditions if the permit is issued by MTA.”

So is the aim ultimately to standardise the process across the board?

“Yes. Not that it is always easy. If you take places of entertainment, there are many different categories, and these have been there for many years. So we have to be careful how to change things. We have to be careful not to go from one extreme to another. It’s something else we have a tendency to do in Malta. Basically we need to be careful not to hinder activity from going on, while ensuring better standards.” 

Sticking to the broader theme of Paceville: at the risk of perpetuating a blatantly exaggerated reputation, the place has become so notorious that there is now even talk of policemen being assigned there as a form of ‘punishment’. This possibility was even raised by the Opposition recently. Is there any truth to this allegation?  

He gives me a look of genuine bewilderment. “I don’t really know what to make of the claim, to be honest. When I heard the Opposition leader state it, I found myself asking: was it the same when the PN was in government? Did the Nationalists consider Paceville a place to send policemen you don’t like? I have to say, it is a very strange concept to me…”

What about when he hears it from others? It has been raised as a complaint by individual (anonymous) police sources in the press… 

He shrugs. “When I went around all police stations in Malta and Gozo, I never got the sensation that there are areas where police are sent as punishment. Bear in mind also that, according to law, it is the Police Commissioner who decides such matters, not the minister.”

At the same time, however, the thrust of this criticism has less to do with politics than with the actual situation in Paceville. Regardless whether it is being done deliberately, there is a sense that Paceville has become so unruly that the police themselves consider being posted there as the worst possible assignment.

“You could say the same thing about certain village feasts. Santa Lucija, for example, organises a feast. Even Hamrun organises a feast. But there is a difference. Sta Lucija is a small town, and its feast is likewise small. Hamrun – and I could mention others – is much bigger, and controlling the much larger crowds is more difficult. So if you send a policeman to Hamrun for the feast: is that a ‘punishment’, too? Because if so, what’s the alternative? Not send any police at all?”

One other alternative would be to clean the place up, so that the reputation would no longer be justified…

“Yes, that is why we have just increased the number of police assigned to Paceville. Is that enough? Probably not. There are other issues we also have to look at. The police need training to deal with a variety of situations. We also have to equip them with the right equipment to be able to cope with any emergencies that may arise.”

What effect is all this having on the operational capability of the police force throughout the rest of the country? Abela has just increased the number on patrol in Paceville. But the total number of police on the island has not grown accordingly. Is our Police Force too small to cope with what is expected of them… in an island that has (let’s face it) changed so much in recent years?

“Well, that’s a question I ask myself all the time. We have about 2,200 policemen in the force. Is that adequate, or not? First and foremost, I believe that there are a number of police who are actually doing work that is not policing. Can we allocate or utilise these policemen better? If I have a policeman in uniform working as a clerk or a driver… and only as a clerk or a driver… and then, we have difficulties in allocations for police stations, or for policing within the community … are we making the most of what we have? Can our police rely on strong back-up, if additional help is needed from, for example, the Rapid Intervention Unit? This, I believe, should be the first question to ask…”

Judging by the past year, it seems we already have a partial answer. “This year we recruited a number of new policemen, and hope to recruit more in the coming year. It is good to have recruitment every year, because we need new blood. It is good for the Force. But we also have to ask ourselves how best to utilise the manpower.” 

Speaking of which, the police seem to do a lot of things that do not, strictly speaking, fall within the remit of ‘police work’. One example is the distribution of voting documents at election time. I always find it strange, to open the door and find two policemen, an electoral commissioner, and two party representatives on the doorstep… just to give me my voting ID. 

Don’t the police have any more pressing things to attend to at election time, than act as glorified DHL deliverymen?

“I think it’s a sign that all parties trust the police,” he replies with a smile. “I like to look at it positively. But still, ideally it is a practice I would like to see phased out in future. I won’t delve too deeply into this issue, but even the voting document itself… I believe that, if we all have ID cards… and if these are renewed without too much fanfare or difficulty...”

Here he breaks of to reminisce about the time when the Labour Opposition urged the PN government to renew expired ID cards. “The minister at the time was Austin Gatt, and he made it sound like we were asking the impossible. And yet, we changed the ID cards without too much difficulty…”

Ultimately, however, he reminds me that any change to the electoral process would require an amendment to the Constitution, and that would require cross-party discussion first.

Meanwhile, there is another dimension to the question of whether we are making optimal use of the forces of law and order. We have already talked about the size of the Force. What about the conditions of employment? 

It is worth pointing out that the typical job of a policeman is not the same today as it was 20 years ago or more. Malta’s crime landscape has changed of late – if not in the amount of crimes committed, certainly in the type of criminality involved. We are now experienced ‘new’ phenomena such as gang-related crime, human smuggling, house burglaries on a scale that seems very well-organised… in brief, the job of crime-fighting has become more difficult, demanding and dangerous. 

Do the police’s conditions of work reflect this changing reality?

“I see no harm in discussing work conditions…”

Are there any plans to revise them?

“At the moment there is nothing on the table, no. But I see no harm in starting a discussion on the subject. Not just take-home pay, benefits and other issues related directly to employment. Also work practices. But if I may say something regarding the crime rate: some may have the perception that the crime rate is on the increase. But actually, statistics indicate that crime is going down. It is no consolation for me, I have to add. I always look at figures, not to use them politically… but as a matter of fact. The fact is that crime in general is going down, not up…”

But that is only part of the picture, he concedes. “It is not enough for the crime rate to drop; we have to also concentrate on crime prevention. That is why I believe it is important to have more police presence within the community. It is one thing to have an efficient system in place to respond to crime… that after a system of investigations, prosecutions, etc., you get results… but it is far preferable not to have to go through that process by preventing more crimes. For that, we need to focus more on prevention…”

There is meanwhile other considerations regarding employment conditions within the Police Force. Apart from reflecting the changing face of police work, adequate remuneration is also a safeguard against corruption. A well-paid law enforcer has less incentive to accept a bribe than one who is struggling financially. 

“I don’t think that is an excuse,” Abela interjects. “Like I said, I’m open to discussing changes, but the reason shouldn’t be that.” 

A policeman, he seems to be suggesting, should never accept a bribe on principle, and not out of financial considerations. “Not just policemen, either; it applies to politicians, too… in fact, it applies to everyone.”

Well, that’s partly my point. Parliamentarians did give themselves a raise not so long ago, didn’t they? With much the same justification. We also talk about improving the conditions of judges and magistrates, for similar reasons (in fact, we started talking about after the judges’s scandal of 2000).

Is the minister confident that, with their current work conditions, Malta’s police are as insusceptible to corruption as reasonably possible?

“I am against corruption in all its forms…” he begins. 

No doubt: but does he think it is a reality within the Force all the same? And shouldn’t his own argument about ‘prevention’ also apply to corruption? 

He pauses. “From time to time there is hearsay, but I can’t confirm anything. That is why one other issue I personally also discussed with the Police Commissioner was to have rotation from time to time within police assigned to Paceville. Not just Paceville, but all police serving in all districts. This way, policemen would not be assigned to districts indefinitely, or until transferred. The Commissioner is already working on this; it is after all his duty to assign police work. But I think there has already been an improvement, and this was the feeling I also got from my meeting with the GRTU and their members.” 

The presence of police in Paceville has just increased, he reminds me. “But I expect more than just numbers. The quality has to increase also. That’s why I mentioned training earlier. To think and act swiftly, you need to be trained. It’s not enough to know the law: there are situations where a policeman has to use personal judgment. What course of action to take? How to best calm a situation? I place a lot of emphasis on training for this reason. And hopefully we will get there, too.”

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