The Malta Independent 5 August 2020, Wednesday

TMIS Editorial: A police force in tatters

Sunday, 16 February 2020, 11:00 Last update: about 7 months ago

If the Malta Police Force had any credibility left, it was torn to shreds over the last week with the uncovering of a major scandal within the Traffic Branch that could likely spread to other police sections.

Over 40 of the Traffic Branch’s 50 officers have been arrested after it was revealed that they were involved in a racket involving overtime abuse, the collection of protection money from big contractors and the theft of government fuel.

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The unit has practically been dismantled following the arrests, suspensions and resignations of many of its personnel, including senior officers.

This newsroom revealed this week that many traffic policemen were running around on their service motorcycles, with their GPS trackers switched off, collecting money from construction companies and transport firms in return for turning a blind eye to traffic contraventions.

We also revealed how taxpayer money was ending up in a bank account that was used to pay out thousands of euro to officers for extra duties that were not being performed, and how officers would steal fuel from their police motorcycles to sell it or use it in their private vehicles.

The case was brought to the attention of the higher-ups by a whistleblower, but the investigation was only launched two months later, after a letter was sent to the media.

The Malta Independent reported yesterday that the people investigating the racket were initially told to “sit on the file.” The whistleblower first reported the abuse in October but the probe was launched two months later, at the beginning of December, as confirmed by the former police minister, Michael Farrugia.

This newspaper is also reporting today that a witch hunt is underway within the force, with attempts being made to uncover the whistleblower’s identity – a practice that has, unfortunately, become standard when someone speaks up and reports corruption in this country.

The force already had big credibility problems and this latest scandal threatens to destroy its reputation for good.

The fact that these alleged crimes were being committed by the people who have sworn to uphold the law and who are supposed to set an example for us common citizens makes these actions many times worse. It is also a shame that their actions are overshadowing the good work done by diligent officers who do not give in to the temptation of corruption.

Worse still, the people at the very top are refusing to shoulder any form of responsibility.

Michael Farrugia, who was the police minister up until a few weeks ago, has insisted that no fingers should be pointed at him because he ordered an investigation as soon as he became aware of the racket.

But launching an investigation is not enough. As the person who was politically responsible for the Malta Police Force, Farrugia must man up and offer his resignation.

Under his watch, the police failed to take action on a number of major government corruption scandals, little to no action was taken on leaked FIAU reports linking senior government officials to money laundering and people who were interfering with the investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia have still not been prosecuted.

And now this – a full-blown mafia-like racket involving four out of every five people in the traffic branch. No, Minister Farrugia, an investigation is not enough. A resignation is warranted.

The same can be said for Lawrence Cutajar, who recently landed a cushy government job in logistics.

If Prime Minister Robert Abela really means business and believes in a zero tolerance approach to corruption, he must not only ensure that those involved in the racket are prosecuted and brought to justice, and that the police force is cleaned up of this filth, but he must also ensure that those who were leading the force when these shameful acts were taking place carry their own responsibility.

We cannot keep tolerating this ‘not my fault’ mentality and always let the politicians get away with it.

But beyond the issue of political responsibility and resignations, it is of paramount importance that the police force is rebuilt from the bottom up.

It is unclear whether PM Abela had this scandal in mind a few weeks ago when he announced a new method of appointing Police Commissioners and spoke about a police reform.

What is certain is that the force needs a holistic review and plan of action to ensure that such things are not repeated in future.

Perhaps one of the things that should be considered is increasing the salaries of police officers, making them less susceptible to corruption. Certainly, the force must work on its internal auditing systems, as it is clear that the current methods are totally inadequate at catching abuse. 

The next Police Commissioner must have the courage to take hard and painful decisions because, at this stage, nothing short of a miracle can save the police force.

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