The Malta Independent 29 September 2022, Thursday
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Police stations

Mary Muscat Sunday, 14 August 2022, 09:45 Last update: about 3 months ago

There’s a whole environmental psychology and semiology to police stations, and one that has been studied academically, so writing about this is not just a rushed opinion or a Sunday rant. And it’s definitely not politically motivated but one based on personal experience.  

Academic literature has measured the impact on the public’s perception of police stations based on three characteristics conveyed by such places: authority, professionalism and approachability. Incidentally, there aren’t many studies of this impact on police officers, which is a finding in itself.

In terms of authority, the problem with Maltese stations is that they were not necessarily built for the purpose, except possibly for Mtarfa’s, Rabat’s, Balzan’s, Żabbar’s and Mosta’s since they form part of a Civic Centre, where some even have space for dormitories. The most recent station added to this list is Marsascala’s.

There’s the odd exception of historical military premises such as Mdina’s. Then again, the General Headquarters was built to serve as a hospital, and not a police complex, still less to serve as the main hub serving the whole country. But most of the existing stations were originally built as private residences and leased or expropriated to serve a public purpose, whether it was a police station or a band club. In fact, the problem with these stations is that they are still not suitable for the purpose, whether functionally or symbolically. They might be strategically placed in the town square but even that is being challenged by the increased electronic access to authorities.

On top of everything else, in case the authorities are still oblivious to that old bad practice of expropriation, these stations are being reclaimed by their original owners and rightfully so. This has happened in Żebbuġ (Malta), for example, and I’m sure there are more to follow. So much for the conveyance of ‘authority’ – it’s high time now to seriously rethink the whole package.

And it takes more than updating the premises to include a wheelchair ramp because of new legal obligations. I remember an ‘approachability’ exercise in the early 1990s where the extremely high counters were lowered to a more public-friendly level. Looking at what we now know about victimology and about domestic violence, it becomes obvious how previous efforts at improving the physical environment of police stations were really and truly, amateurish, non-inclusive and gender dismissive.

There is such a thing as hostile architecture. When it is intentional, architectural design is used to dissuade a certain type of demographic to prevent specific crime. But architecture can become hostile when the wrong purpose is imposed on it and it deters functionality, and that’s what’s happening with our police stations, the ones that were originally designed as private residences. This is where the professionalism characteristic of the station becomes seriously undermined and in more ways than one.

The professionalism of police stations is not measured by the décor. The layout, upkeep and maintenance of stations can run down morale and I remember a time when simply applying for the installation of air-conditioning in a district station, as its Inspector serving there, was interpreted as insubordinate behaviour, and produced long lasting personal repercussions for the unpardonable sin of pointing out what was not working.

The police station construct needs to be updated to reflect not only internal functionality, efficiency, effectiveness, and public service, but other important issues such as legitimacy. Academic literature speaks of the ‘police space’ and ‘habitus’, that need to be constantly reclaimed through a coherent infrastructure. This simply means that the branding and upkeep of stations shouldn’t be an occasional exercise from GHQ. These studies speak of the right amount of imposition of the ideal environment versus the realistic context, without the latter edging out the former.

Police stations are more than just buildings, they are part of the police service delivery mechanisms that are built to last, to serve the public and the police individuals who work in this environment. They reflect the institution itself, so to subject officers to work in substandard environments is a message in itself. To the powers that be:  pull your socks up and prioritise this obvious, basic obligation.

Secondly, to keep holding on to expropriated private residences is also a message: how about owning up to this obsolete legal short-sightedness that violates a basic human right? Build your own stations, ones that are inclusive of all sectors of society, and ones that make it worthwhile to turn up for an honest day’s work. Show up, for the external public and for your internal public who have to be there 24/7.

Police stations are very particular places of work that require a very specific legal function that needs to be played out in the most correct manner and timing. Not keeping the house in order speaks volumes.

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