Crime and misconceptions | Saviour Formosa

Few areas are more fraught with misconceptions than the criminal underworld. Criminologist Prof. Saviour Formosa dispels some popular flawed perceptions... including that Malta’s crime rate is on the increase

Saviour Formosa (Photo: Chris Mangion)
Saviour Formosa (Photo: Chris Mangion)

“Where is the worst area for criminality in Malta? It is one of the first questions I ask my students as a lecturer…”

Saviour Formosa is an associate professor who lectures criminology at the University of Malta. As it happens, I meet him for this interview in one of the localities that is often (mistakenly, as he will soon explain) cited as an answer to the above question: Valletta. 

“In many cases, the answer will have more to do with the offender than the offence,” he goes on. “So places such as Bormla or Valletta might be suggested…”

We are sitting outside a quiet café in South Street… and we both agree that the place does not in any way feel ‘unsafe’. Nor, for that matter, does Bormla… even if it does happen to have one of the worst reputations as a ‘crime hotspot’.

Such perceptions, he adds, exist for several reasons. “If there is a perception that more offenders live in Bormla, people would also assume that Bormla therefore has the highest rate of crime. But it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t even come close…”

It is also debatable whether more offenders really do live in these areas. “Up until recently, you could safely say that Valletta was home to one eighth of all the people who had ever been to prison in Malta. What this means in practice is that, for every eight people who have spent time in prison, one of them would be a resident of Valletta. But we have to be careful with such definitions. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that person would be originally from Valletta…”

Usually, it would be more a case that Valletta – and, at various times, also Bormla and other areas – offers cheaper rental accommodation, so it is likelier that people would take up residence there upon release from prison. In real terms, however this has no bearing at all on the crime rate in these localities.

“Does it follow from the above statistic – which incidentally is no longer true, as most prison inmates by far are now foreigners – that Valletta has eight times the crime rate of other localities? No, not at all. This can be statistically demonstrated…”

Even if there may have been truth to such claims in years gone by, the country’s crime profile has in any case changed completely in recent years. 

“Today, Qawra has overtaken these places as an area of interest to the criminologist, for various reasons. There is a multicultural environment, which is a very new phenomenon for Malta. You also have an annual population explosion in summer, which creates a seasonal residential phenomenon…”

This seasonality factor creates problems of its own. “For instance, you will get cases where the theft of, for instance, a necklace would be reported to the police a day or two before the owner – a tourist – leaves the island. This makes the crime harder for the police to investigate. They would have to bring the victim back to Malta to testify in court…”

The statistics do indicate that Qawra has a higher rate of reported crime than elsewhere… and this rate has increased in recent years. But despite fluctuations in certain localities, Prof. Formosa nonetheless argues that Malta’s crime rate has actually fallen over the same time period.

This raises an apparent contradiction. The statistics he cites indicate that Malta is getting safer. Why, then, is there an undeniable perception that the opposite is true? Why do surveys (including our own) indicate that people feel less safe, not more? 

“Such misconceptions unfortunately exist. There are many reasons, some more complex than others. But at a certain level, these misconceptions are being fuelled by the media, and also by political debate. The reality is that Malta has remained one of the safest countries in Europe by far, even considering the large volume of tourists we receive. Having said that, real crime does occur. And any crime that is committed is unwanted. There will always be a victim… even if the victim is none other than the Maltese state. I don’t want to minimise the effect of crime, or pretend that it’s not a problem. But yes, there is a gaping abyss between perception and reality…

Here, Prof. Formosa points towards the recent spate of residential thefts in Sliema as an example. “It reached a peak two years ago; but this ‘peak’ was fuelled by the perceptions of people on the ground… and above all, by the people who could shout the loudest. At the time, I participated in a televised debate on the issue. One of the questions I asked was… would the uproar have been the same, had these crimes taken place in another locality? I don’t think so. And Assistant Commissioner Silvio Valletta, who was on the same programme, agreed…”

Sliema, he adds, has its own peculiarities. “What happened a couple of years ago was that you had a number of residents of the locality who were writing in the newspapers, and commenting under articles. You had a local council that was very vocal about the issue. It became a political issue. The ministry panicked… in the sense that it felt it had to react. And as a criminologist, I would argue that all this attention actually aggravated the issue...” 

One of the effects was what criminologists refer to as ‘displacement’.

“The fuss that was made at the time made the offenders move away to other localities. Technically, the criminality was displaced...”

There are, however, other circumstances where crime does actually go down without being displaced. “Previously, there was a single stretch of road – Dragonara Road in St Julian’s [connecting Paceville to St George’s Bay] which in years gone by used to account for one tenth of all the reported crime in Malta….”

That is a spectacularly high incidence of crime, for a single road… 

“But the reasons had more to do with the conditions of the locality itself. Previously, the area was unlit, and cars were allowed to park on both sides of the street, with no supervision of any kind. So when street lights were installed, and it was designated a no parking area… the level of crime dropped all the way down to zero.”

The high crime rate, then, was more down to the fact that Dragonara Road offered unique opportunities for crime to occur. “When these issues were addressed, the high proportion of crimes [mostly thefts from parked cars] did not move to, for instance, Swieqi… it stopped happening altogether.”

Prof. Formosa invites me to compare this to the spate of thefts in Sliema.

“When the crimes stopped happening in Sliema, we started getting reports of copycat crimes taking place in other localities: among them, Attard. So again, the perception was that crime was shooting up. This is not true, however. Crime rose in one area, and dropped in another. On a national level, the number of reported crimes remained more or less the same...”

A pattern begins to emerge from such situations: when people talk about crime rates going up, or Malta feeling less safe, it is usually a very localised and temporary phenomenon. “So as far as the people who lived in those localities were concerned, the perception was that more crimes were being committed… but in actual fact, the opposite was true. You may be surprised by this, but when you look at the actual figures, the number of thefts from residences went down over the corresponding period... and it went down by a substantial percentage, too.”

Formosa adds that the displacement of such crimes also makes them harder for the police to solve. 

“In the case of the Sliema thefts, the criminals were eventually caught, and it turned out to be an international gang. Following the outcry, this gang retracted its ‘soldiers’… not to other parts of Malta, but to other countries. They waited for the fuss to die down, and then they returned about a year later. This time, the police were prepared, and nabbed them. Had the police been allowed to get on with their work without any such outcry, the criminals would in all probability have been arrested much sooner. So ultimately, public perception has an impact on actual crime levels…”

But this also seems to point towards a contradiction. Couldn’t it also be argued that the outcry – even if based on a flawed perception – resulted in more police action, and therefore contributed to the drop in crime mentioned by Formosa himself?

“Not exactly. There are a number of reasons for the drop in reported crime. On a national level, there is more awareness, and there have also been changes to the way the police operate. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of policemen on the beat in various localities. Where, in years gone by, police work was perhaps more office-based, today there is a drive towards recruiting more police, and ensuring more active police presence…”

Meanwhile, even if the statistics regularly indicate improvements, Formosa points out that political input has a habit of making matters worse.

“What really bothers me is that there are a lot of political statements, as well as PQs, which create a moral panic. If a politician wants to state that crime is going up… base it on the facts. Approach the police, approach criminologists, approach people in the scene… because it is harder to unlearn things than to learn them. It is harder to deal with misconceptions, than to deal with crime itself…”

At the same time, the perception is not just that crime is going up; there is also a feeling that we are witnessing different types of crime. The Sliema thefts involved a foreign gang, which Prof. Formosa admits represents something of a new phenomenon for Malta. We are also living in a digitised world, and having to contend with new realities… cybercrime, for instance.

 “Yes, the type of crimes being reported is changing. Even if the number of reported thefts has dropped considerably, there have been increases – sometimes quite dramatic – in specific types of theft. For instance: pickpocketing has skyrocketed in the last year. Where before there may have been 70 reports in a year, we are now seeing close to 1,000. Crime is becoming more personal in this sense. The theft of a laptop, a mobile phone… this sort of crime is on the increase, even if thefts from private residences have dropped. And there is another factor: domestic violence…”

Here, Prof. Formosa warns that statistics have to be treated with caution. “If you just look at the figures, the number of domestic violence reports has shot up dramatically. But this is also to do with the fact that the Domestic Violence Act introduced new definitions. So types of crimes that were not reported at all previously, are now being reported. Significantly, however, cases involving grievous or serious bodily harm have dropped. What we are seeing more of are reports of psychological harm….”

There are also anomalies that can be put down to economies of scale. Formosa points out how the town of Hal Safi experienced an explosion in such domestic violence cases. “On paper, it looked like an alarming spike. What actually happened, however, was that there were two or three couples going through separation cases, and they suddenly started reporting each other over every single incident imaginable… in this sense, statistics can also be misleading…”

Coming back to the changing face of crime: new developments (including sporadic cases of what appears to be gang warfare) also raise the question of whether our law enforcement capability is geared up to deal with these realities. Is the Malta Police Force large and well-equipped enough to cope?

“Let’s take two different levels. On one level there is the issue of recruitment. To become a police officer, all you need is four O-levels. That is the minimum. Is the system sufficient in its present form? Should we go for a more academic approach? At the moment, it is being tackled through a programme of continuous training.  There are proposals involving MCAST, the University… and at inspector level, it is now possible to get a diploma. But it has to be kept at a full-time level. You can’t have a full-time policeman working nine to five, and then spending from five to nine in the evening doing additional training. They’ll be too tired, and it would be counterproductive. But things are moving at that level…”

The other level concerns equipment, and here the situation is less promising.

“The fact is that the Corps needs to be updated to today’s realities. The Police Force cannot only be reactive; it has to also be proactive. And there are efforts to go there. What worries me, however, is that the crime situation – not just in Malta, but all over the world – is going to change drastically in the next five years.” 

In the next few years, society is going to move towards an increasingly virtual environment. 

“Today, we are used to the world of the internet… but that is evolving, and we will soon have to contend with virtual reality in 3D… Facebook, for instance, has just bought Oculus Rift… a virtual headset that enables people to interact with an artificial environment in 3D. That’s the first step; the next step will be augmented reality. With these new technologies, we will also have to contend with new crimes.”

Formosa cites the possibility of a combination of hacking and optical technology, that could (for argument’s sake) simulate a virtual attack on a person, that could easily be mistaken for a real physical assault. 

“I see this happening in the near future. The technology is already available, and will be mainstream in two or three years’ time. We’re already talking about virtual crime. Very soon, we will be talking about ‘augmented reality’ crime. Are the police prepared? Of course not. We have problems as things stand with definitions of traditional crimes, such as theft. What is the technical definition of pickpocketing, for instance? It may seem obvious to people out there, but in a context where crimes have to be proven in a court of law, the actual definitions need to be sound. Just imagine how much harder it is to define crimes which haven’t yet been invented… which are evolving in step with new technologies…”

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