An erosion of respect for authority | Michael Farrugia

Tuesday’s shocking incident, which left a police constable permanently disabled and fighting for his life, has sparked national outrage. Home Affairs minister MICHAEL FARRUGIA outlines plans to boost the Force’s health and safety standards, while urging a culture of greater respect towards the blue uniform

Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia
Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia

If nothing else, the horrifying injuries suffered by PC Simon Schembri last Tuesday serve as graphic testimony to the risks involved in policing. This raises a question many prospective policemen must surely be asking themselves... are the salaries and working conditions of the Police Force commensurate with such extreme risk to life and limb?

I think we have to take a broader view than just salary and working conditions. The majority of people who decide to join the Corps, do so because they love the work of the police. It is a passion [‘amur’] in itself. They would know that the job is pegged to Civil Service salary scales: on top of that, one can talk about promotions, allowances, and various opportunities that may arise. For instance, one thing we introduced recently was that ‘fixed point’ officers – e.g., sentry duty outside an Embassy – are not selected from policemen who are supposed to be on duty that day. Instead, it is now an opportunity for overtime, so they can make more money. If it’s money we’re talking about...

Well, money is part of it, but there are also conditions such as hours of work... issues of insurance, compensation to family in case of loss of life, etc...

... yes, in fact that is why we have to take a broader view. First of all, we are in the process of negotiating a new collective agreement. Negotiations are now at an advanced stage, and hopefully it will be concluded soon. I also believe we need to look at the comfort angle: for instance, new uniforms that are better suited, more comfortable and less dangerous to the policemen on duty. There will still be the ‘official’ uniform; but we are looking into new uniforms for the working policemen in the street. On top of that, we are also taking health and safety into consideration. So even certain work practices that have been retained until now, may soon be changed. To give you a small example: I am a car enthusiast – as I always say – and sometimes, it can be more important that the tyres are in perfect condition, than the engine. Especially if you’re going to drive at very high speeds. [So when it comes to equipment], we’re not going to issue a tender and just settle for the cheapest offer. The cheapest tyre will not offer the best possible safety features. [...] Apart from that, we are looking at various other safety issues: crash helmets, and so on... so as to provide a more thorough health and safety upgrade. On the subject of work hours: here, there have been discussions with the unions, and adjustments were made, where possible, to the number of hours a policeman is expected to work. [...] We also know there are certain ranks which demand longer hours of work. We are looking to evaluate this factor, even in the ongoing collective agreement negotiations... in practice, some sectors work 46 hours a week, while others work 40 hours. We want to put an end to this discrepancy, and ensure that all policemen are properly compensated for work over and above the norm – either through allowances, or overtime rates – so that the income they take home to their families is commensurate to the hours worked.

In this instance there was serious, permanent disability involved. Your ministry issued a statement saying that ‘adequate work’ will be offered to the victim within the Police Force. First of all: can you elaborate on that?

There will be an evaluation, and [PC Schembri] will be properly compensated for what happened to him... just as others have been compensated in the past, depending on the circumstances. In this case, however, one other thing we will be doing – I already discussed this with the Police Commissioner, immediately after the incident – is that, if he decides to remain in the service, we guarantee that he will be able to do so. He is an exemplary and highly respected member of the Corps, and still has a lot to contribute. As such, I’ve already received an email from the Police Academy, with an offer [of a teaching position]. Other entities have also come forward: the Victim Support Group, counselling groups, and the [Police] Chaplain, who is assisting the family...

Fair enough, but these all seem to be voluntary, spontaneous, one-off offers which – while commendable, in themselves – do not suggest an active, permanent policy in place. Is there any standard procedure when it comes to compensating police officers injured in the line of duty?

Of course. The examples I mentioned were not all ‘spontaneous’: the Victim Support Group is there for all victims, not just Simon Schembri... even though he is, naturally, a victim.  And counselling is something offered to various members of the Corps on a regular basis, for a wide variety of reasons. It is in the nature of the job to be confronted with unpleasant, macabre and possibly traumatic realities. Sometimes policemen may need counselling to get over a trauma they may have experienced on a crime scene, or some other aspect of their job. And the Chaplain is always very close to the Police: not just in matters of religion, but even when it comes to personal or family issues. I can say that, last Tuesday, I visited Schembri in hospital and stayed there until around 11, when they took him up to the operating theatre. The Chaplain not only stayed there later, but remained with the family... just yesterday, I visited the ITU and he was already there, before me. All throughout he has been there, providing psychological and moral support to the family. I feel it has to be said that he did this, not just because of the particular circumstances... but it is his nature to act that way, in all circumstances.

Meanwhile, questions have also been raised about whether there are specific insurance policies with regard to cases like this. Are the police adequately insured against injuries acquired in the line of duty?

As government, we always cover all employees within the public service: from the highest level, to the lowest. From that angle, there is a level of insurance automatically guaranteed by government. To give a general example: government cars are not insured. But government makes good for any damage to third parties, or any claim for compensation. In all cases: this is not just about the police. Government, in such cases, enters as a guarantor, from A to Z. [...] For instance, in cases where somebody sues [Mater Dei] hospital, because, according to the patient, the treatment was inadequate, or there was negligence, malpractice, etc. Often, they will sue the doctor, nurse, Chief Government Medical Officer, the minister... everybody concerned. If there are damages to be paid out, ordered by the law-courts... the parties would be covered by government insurance. A doctor’s indemnity is covered by government. [...] Each sector has its own risks and particular conditions. If you’re a front-desk officer, for instance: it would not be the first time that a front-desk officer has been assaulted. Doctors and nurses also face this risk in hospital, and when called out on site. Correctional officers in prison are another category. Even Civil Protection Department officials, sometimes. There are many high-risk positions in the public service. Unfortunately, the police happen to be directly on the front line. It is also unfortunate that they have been portrayed in a negative light by certain segments of society... and this has made them more vulnerable. One effect is that there is less respect towards the police today...

The police are on the front line. It is also unfortunate that they have been portrayed in a negative light... and this has made them more vulnerable

This seems to echo the view expressed (or at least, the interpretation of that view) by MEP Marlene Mizzi: who seemed to suggest a connection between this incident, and a growing culture of contempt towards the police in general. Do you agree with that argument?

I would say that all ridicule or contempt is wrong. It sends the wrong message. Often this is done unknowingly, or not on purpose. But eventually, even these unintentional remarks can end up in a situation where there are more attacks – even verbal attacks – on the police. We are noticing that there is less respect towards the police in general, and more cases of individual police officers being attacked, both verbally and physically. Now, let me not be misunderstood: I’m not saying that what happened last Tuesday was done with the specific intention of harming the Police as a whole. It may have been done to harm that individual person. But that person nonetheless represents the whole Police Force. So, if certain things are done outside the Police Headquarters, for example...

I assume you’re referring to recent public protests, messages on placards, etc...

[Nods] ...it could influence [public perceptions of the police]. The real problem is not what is said or done over there... it is how it might be interpreted by whoever is watching it on TV. Let me repeat myself: it would not have been the intention behind what was done... but from the perspective of the people seeing these things on TV, or following them on social media... the message they would be receiving would be interpreted through a different lens from those who are actually imparting it. So when it reaches the recipient, the message will be a negative reflection on the Police as a whole. Basically, my point is that: let’s be a little more cautious in the way we protest... in the things we do... because very often, those things will not be interpreted exactly how we would want them to be interpreted. So I think it’s important – and in fact both the Police and government will be assuming this role – to embark on a positive campaign about the Police Force. Not, I stress, so that if there is anything wrong, we pretend that it’s right. But so that we inculcate more respect towards the uniform.

To play the devil’s advocate: the criticism in those ‘messages’ was specifically that the Police force doesn’t always act in a way that is conducive to respect... such as, for instance, when it fails to properly investigate allegations of wrongdoing by people in power. Isn’t there a danger that this incident might be exploited to deflect that inconvenient message?

One thing I see that is wrong in the message is, for instance, comments which refer to ‘the corrupt police’. That’s a very crude generalisation, and it comes across badly. In second place: investigations are, in fact, taking place in the background. Before you can proceed in the open, you need to have hard evidence in hand. And there have been cases – not just recently, but even in the remote past – where steps were taken against high-ranking politicians... but got nowhere, because there wasn’t enough evidence for the person concerned to be found guilty. If you rush things – in any case: it could be political, or non-political – and proceed against someone without enough proof... for one thing, all that work you’ve done will go to waste, because he will be acquitted. And in such cases, it might even be said that the police acted too quickly, and proceeded without proof, on purpose to get the suspect acquitted.  So yes, you do need to move quickly: but not so quickly, that you end up arraigning people without sufficient proof for a conviction. Otherwise, you’ll only end up being scolded by the courts for wasting their time... and quite rightly, too.

Coming back to this apparent ‘culture of disrespect’: we often read news items about people accused of serious crimes, but getting away with very lenient (often suspended) sentences... so even if the police themselves took action, the end result is still a perception that people will always get let off lightly, no matter what. Does this contribute to an erosion of respect for the forces of law and order in general?

I think the successes that the police have been registering – especially in the past year and a half – in the fight against organised crime have been higher than ever before...

Not everyone would agree with that...

Look at the amount of drugs apprehended by the police in the past year alone. Also, there were two cases of car-bombs – or attempted car-bombs – where the suspects were identified and arrested; in some cases where more than one perpetrator was caught. There are other cases that are still being investigated, such as that of Daphne [Caruana Galizia]. That investigation is still underway: Europol is still involved. The one million euro reward still stands, in the hope that more people will step forward with what they know...

I’ve heard a rumour that the three arrests made were, in fact, down to that reward offer. That’s not the case?

I heard that rumour too. No. Those people were arrested thanks to the hard work of the police, the Security Services, etc, together with foreign experts. But most of the substantive work was done by local investigators. As was the case, in its totality, for the failed Fgura car bomb [in January]. The Security Services and police worked hand in glove, and managed to solve that case in a few weeks. There have been certain successes that might even help resolve earlier cases, some going back years. In fact, a lot of this work is ongoing, even if not all of it gets reported by the media. But the police do take action, and do register considerable successes. The latest reports indicate that, for the third consecutive year, there has been stability in the number of criminal cases reported to the police. This is significant, when viewed in the context of the growing population, and the increase in tourism each year. One would have expected the crime rates to grow, but instead they have remained stable. This gives us an indication of all the hard work done by the Malta Police Force.

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