The Malta Independent 30 May 2020, Saturday

Traffic branch scandal: ‘I was deeply disappointed; a stab in the back’ – acting police chief

Neil Camilleri Sunday, 3 May 2020, 09:30 Last update: about 26 days ago

Acting Police Commissioner Carmelo Magri was “deeply disappointed” by the traffic branch scandal and considered it as a form of “backstabbing” by colleagues in the force.

In a rare interview, he also told The Malta Independent on Sunday that he hopes the measures taken to correct the situation and identify other potential cases of wrongdoing will help fix the damage done.

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Magri took over the helm of the police force, on a temporary basis, after the resignation of Lawrence Cutajar in January. Back then, the government had announced that a new system of appointing police commissioners would be devised. The system has since been put in place, and applications opened this week. Carmelo Magri, who has served for 35 years, was chosen to lead the force during this interim period.

One of the issues he has had to deal with is the scandal that rocked the Traffic Section. Over 40 officers were investigated over claims of corruption and overtime abuse, which came to light after a whistle-blower uncovered the alleged racket in October of last year.

No one has been arraigned so far. Asked why the investigation is taking so long, Magri said he understands that people are eager for action, but they also have to understand that such a “complex” investigation takes time.

“When I took over this role and this problem landed on my lap, I decided that I wanted things to be done properly, so that no one could say that we did not investigate everything or that we were covering up for our own. Yes, it is taking time but the investigation is progressing at a good pace.”

He explained that 34 members of the traffic section are on police bail. No one is currently under arrest.

Steps were taken immediately to make up for lost personnel, Magri noted. The unit engaged 24 officers and inhouse training was provided. “While there are fewer officers than before, the team is doing a fantastic job,” the Acting Commissioner said.

Plans to bring over foreign experts to provide specialised training had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I decided that the best course of action was to place the entire police force under an investigation by the autonomous Internal Audit and Investigations Department. We will act on their recommendations. If any wrongdoing is found, we will investigate and prosecute. We also asked the IAID to give us recommendations on how we can improve our operations and we will take these on board.”

At the same time, the police force also updated its operating procedures to ensure that extra duties and overtime are assigned more fairly and equally, he said.

Asked by this newspaper, Magri said he feels that the damage done to the image of the force was considerable. “I feel that this has done a great deal of harm to the force because I see it as a form of backstabbing. In my 35 years on the force I never expected something like this to happen.”

Magri said it caused him great distress to see that some officers acted in a way that dented the name of the force both on a local and international level.

“I was greatly disappointed. It is unfair on our other colleagues who work diligently and who, unfortunately, may have been placed in the same basket.”

He is hopeful, however, that the way in which the force dealt with the issue and the good work that most police officers do will be enough to fix the damage done.

 

Criminal investigations ongoing

The Acting Commissioner was also asked whether major criminal investigations, such as those into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia and others linked to it, were still ongoing, seeing that not much has been said about them over the past few weeks.

“You can rest assured that all investigations are still being actively pursued. Just because we’re in the middle of a pandemic does not mean that regular police work has stopped.”

Magri said that the police had arrested and arraigned three suspects within two months of the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. “Then, in November of last year, we arraigned the fourth person (Yorgen Fenech).”

This investigation and others linked to it, such as the claims levelled against former OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri are still being pursued in an “active, yet cautious” manner, he said.

Magri also noted that, when he took over the role, he had asked the lead investigators to bring him up to speed on the cases. “In February, I had a meeting with Europol and asked them to continue assisting us in the investigation.”

While the Europol officers have been unable to visit in view of travel restrictions, videoconference meetings are held on a weekly basis “so that we can keep each other updated and agree on the way forward.”

He also oversaw the launch of a task force, made up of officers from various units as well as civilian analysts. “We gave them a place from where to work, with all necessary equipment, including sophisticated gear used to gather and sort intelligence.”

“I am honestly convinced that these investigations will be successfully concluded in the near future,” Magri said.

 

Crime numbers down

Magri said the police are still managing to reduce crime while performing COVID-19-related duties.

“In March of this year, crime was down by 25% when compared to the same period in 2019. Several snatch and grab cases, armed robberies, muggings and homicides have been successfully investigated. Arraignments are taking place on a regular basis, which shows that we are doing are job.” The Drug Squad has also carried out several big operations, he added.

 

COVID-19 duties

Magri said the police force drafted a contingency plan for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan does not only outline the duties of the force in this new reality, but also caters for preventive measures to limit the exposure of officers and the public to the virus.

Police sections were split up to avoid having an entire unit placed in quarantine. Police stations that are not always open are being used to house teams from various sections.

Officers who do not wish to return home after a shift, in fear of possibly infecting loved ones, have been provided with alternative accommodation.

Perspex screens and sanitizers are among the measures adopted at police stations and other offices that are still open to the public.

“We also modified our operating procedures and launched an online reporting system whereby people can report minor or non-urgent issues without having to go to a police station.

A specialised control room has been set up where a number of officers take calls, receive emails and also messages on the Malta Police Force Facebook pace. There is also another specialised control room, specifically for reporting of breaches of COVID-19 regulations.

These are separate from the 112 control room located in another part of the police headquarters in floriana.

Police sections have had to adapt to the current situation, he explained. “For example, the Rapid Intervention Unit and the Special Intervention Unit might be asked to help District Police or the Drug Squad, while still performing their own duties.”

The workload has doubled, if not tripled, as a result of the pandemic, he noted, but the efficacy of the force has not been compromised.

 

Hunting

Magri also insisted that the police had the required manpower when it came to enforcement during the hunting season, which closed on Thursday.

There had been doubts about the police force’s ability to provide the necessary officers in view of the fact that the Administrative Law Enforcement (ALE) unit was performing quarantine checks.

“We were unsure whether the season would open but, to play it safe, we made all the necessary plans. Yes, we have enough people. We always have an average of 50 officers out in the field.”

Magri said that, by the time the season closed on Thursday, the police had carried out 1,356 inspections in several localities in Malta and Gozo. 673 hunters had been searched and had their documents checked, and 16 were caught hunting illegally and had charges issued against them.

“This does not include the various reports that come in and that we investigate,” Magri added.

 

Some advice for his successor

Magri said he will not be seeking to make his role permanent. Applications for Police Commissioner opened earlier this week, under the new system, which will see the chosen candidate face scrutiny by Parliament.

“I will not be applying. After serving for 35 years, I should be retiring in September. I might have considered it if I was ten years younger,” he quipped.

“I was chosen to lead the force until a new system was put in place and I am happy to say that, over these few months that I have been at the helm, the ship kept on sailing.”

Asked if he had any words of advice for his eventual successor, Magri said the next Police Commissioner should listen to those under his command, build on the good of his predecessors, and not repeat any mistakes made in the past.

“I will be handing over a healthy police force and I am quite confident that the next Police Commissioner will be able to achieve more positive results.”

Carmelo Magri also took the occasion to thank the Malta Police Force CEO, the administration and all police officers.

 

 

 

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