The Malta Independent 13 August 2022, Saturday

Our police corps needs a good shake-up

Mark Said Saturday, 25 June 2022, 10:04 Last update: about 3 months ago

‘....? dirige nos’? No, this is no printing mistake. It is the Police’s motto ‘Domine dirige nos’. ‘Domine’ is currently missing from its proper place and it is about time that it is put back in its place and cemented.

Just when our police service seemed to be embarking on a much-expected overhaul with promising expectations a sudden bolt out of the blues came crashing down on it like a bombshell. In quick succession, we had two major incidents with international connotations that jolted and cracked the Corps’s reputation to the core. First, the Ryan Schembri episode where the officials concerned nonchalantly and irresponsibly dragged their feet on a major money laundering case for several years, only to be followed by the other, more embarrassing incident involving Iosif Galea ending in a probe into how a man subject to an international arrest warrant for nearly a year was allowed to travel out of Malta repeatedly.

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We should deeply reflect on this situation that has long been coming to this point over the past years. It can basically be attributed to three objective constraints on policing that have operated throughout this period and militated against its satisfactory fulfilment. The police service is entrusted to take care of the safety of the community and ensure that the law is implemented equally across the board.

The service provided should contribute towards problem resolution and community policing, and not add to the contracting democratic space within our nation so apparent currently. The first constraint involves the frequent changes in the law and its interpretation by the judiciary. The second is the continuous influence of the press and public opinion, often with intense pressure from reform groups and civil society. The third, and undoubtedly the most important that should attract the utmost remedial attention, is political interference. The biggest issue plaguing the police service is political interference rather than a lack of facilities and human resources.

These three factors, with the complex interplay between police, media, public and politicians, create difficulties for the various departments to do their duty and maintain the morale of their staff. Perhaps not in such an evident manner, increasing political interference has seen pressures being exerted on the police service, or its local authorities, by the government of the day. Unfortunately, it could be that it is a cross which lately has been borne with varying degrees of acquiescence.

Prior to Independence, our police functioned de jure and de facto as an agency totally subordinate to the executive and ever ready to carry out its commands ruthlessly, even though they may not always have been in genuine 'public interest' as viewed by the public. Though the concept of "rule of law" was introduced by the British regime, law enforcement was subject to the ultimate objective of protecting the British Crown and sustaining British rule. In a criminal justice system in which the executive and judicial functions were combined in the same functionaries who constituted the magistracy, accountability to the law was covertly subordinated to the executive will. Military strands of the organisation, with their emphasis on discipline and unquestioning obedience, made it easy for the government of the day to use or misuse the police as they wished.

After long years of tradition of law enforcement subject to executive will under British rule, the police entered their new role in independent Malta in 1964. The foreign power was replaced by a political party that came up through the democratic process as laid down in our Constitution. For a time things went well without any notice of any change, because of the corrective influences that were brought to bear on the administrative structure by the enlightened political leadership of the time. However, as years passed by there was a qualitative change in the style of politics, culminating in a new, subtle form of political and outside interference in the police work.

With two resounding electoral victories coupled with the natural desire of ruling party men to remain in positions of power is resulting in the development of a symbiotic and clandestine relationship between politicians on one hand and the police force on the other. Could it be that vested interests are growing on both sides? What, ostensibly, started as a normal interaction between the politicians and the service for the avowed objective of full autonomy and better administration with better awareness of public feelings and expectations, is now apparently degenerating into different forms of intercession, intervention and interference with mala fide objectives unconnected with the public interest.

If this is so, then, Police Commissioner Gafa’ has the mammoth task of ensuring that there will be no more instances where government officials or politicians are accused of using the police machinery for political ends. He should no longer tolerate instances of individual powerful politicians and former politicians interfering with the administration and work of the police. But to achieve that he must have the security of tenure entrenched in our Constitution.

Political interference is another rich source of corruption. Inaction against known and identified lawbreakers results from influence exercised by the politicians upon police officials. The only way to do away with it is to take a strong stand against political interference. This can come only from within the police force and the higher officers of the department should make it a code of their conduct to resisting all kinds of unlawful interference and to see that their subordinates also do not permit themselves to be influenced by this kind of pressure. Political pressure to obtain political gain regarding resource use is inappropriate. In addition, no justification exists for political interference into police operations, since impartiality of law enforcement would be lost.

No country that professes to be a liberal democracy tolerates political interference in the internal management of its police machinery. The Constitution and the law are the beacons that guide. Police officials at all levels have sworn to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the land. If they falter in that duty, they are culpable  and should be benched.

 

Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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