Fighting the good fight | Inspector Sandro Camilleri

When a traffic police officer was grievously injured in a hit-and-run accident two weeks ago, the driver of the luxury car involved was soon identified as a 17-year-old. Inspector SANDRO CAMILLERI, president of the Police Officers Union says the fight for better equipment and training must be complemented by a broader fight on intolerance and arrogance

Inspector Sandro Camilleri
Inspector Sandro Camilleri

A number of people – and not only politicians – have claimed to have lost faith in the Police Corps or in the Police Commissioner, or have accused the police of being nothing more than a tool in the hands of the political leaders. To make matters worse, the police was seen to take no action, for example in the Panama Papers scandal aftermath, until criminal complaints were filed. Doesn’t that diminish trust in the Corps?

It is very dangerous for someone to say they don’t trust the Police Corps. One can distrust some police officer or other, but it is not right to generalise because our morale takes a severe beating every time we are faced with such claims. In the many accusations and claims raised, hardly any evidence was presented. I was not involved in any way in any of these investigations. I believe that the Opposition in particular has the duty to criticise but I also believe that when making any kind of accusation, one must be in possession of evidence to back the claims. There are cases where there are only hints and suggestions, not even accusations, and yet people expect the police to investigate. To make matters worse, the Corps cannot give public updates on ongoing investigations …

But when there are accusations against politically exposed persons, possibly involved in an international scandal like Panama Papers, with the entire country talking about it, wouldn’t you agree the police force has a duty to let the public know what actions it has taken in such instances?

I have always believed that justice should really not only be done, but be seen to be done, and that the rule of law is supreme. But politicians, including MEPs, have a lot of clout especially when it comes to scrutiny. So why do they not come forward with any evidence they might have in their possession? Because we have seen many accusations and claims but I personally have seen no evidence whatsoever to back them up.

Certain people were named, but I did not see any evidence showing wrongdoing on their part. And this does not count for PEPs alone, but for the whole society. For example, I see certain people around who enjoy a particular quality of life, and wonder how they are never investigated. I’ve even seen this within the Police Corps itself. I sometimes wonder: How is it possible that I have been in the police for so long, and I’m lucky to be able to afford a small car and can hardly make ends meet with the salary I have, while other police officers are well-off? There used to be investigations in the past, and I believe there should be more. I have never been investigated for corruption or similar offences, and anyone is free to do so, because I am not ashamed to say that I am dying of hunger [mejjet bil-guh] with a salary of €1,600 a month. I have been attacked for saying how much I earn, but I don’t believe it should be a secret.

I see certain people around who enjoy a particular quality of life, and wonder how they are never investigated. I’ve even seen this within the Police Corps itself

Back to investigating these claims though. Don’t you think they warranted investigation?

This is not a matter of investigations of national importance alone. There have been numerous false claims against the police, accusing us of beating people up – though at the moment we are the ones getting beaten up. Not too long ago, we saw the headlines, ‘Man beaten up in police van’. All the policemen were arrested and suspended from duty, but after two years the man admitted to having fabricated the claims. Can you imagine the morale within the Corps during those two years? Don’t get me wrong. Just as there are good and bad priests, there are some bad apples within the police as well. And that is why I have been very vocal in calling for random testing for police officers, if these tests are carried out well and fairly. We are part of an organised force and we should accept scrutiny.

How do you feel knowing that people are joining the force, even without having a clean police conduct record?

We need to make a distinction between the police conduct and a person’s criminal record. Chapter 164 clearly says that the Police Corps should reflect society. I do not believe people with a criminal record should be allowed to join. But we need to be clear because some contraventions, even fines, may find their way onto a person’s police conduct, which in some cases, can be wiped clean. We should, instead, focus on the person’s criminal record, and what types of crimes they have committed in the past. Because even with a criminal past, people should not be summarily turned away, depending on the nature of their crimes of course.

Recent reports have claimed that the Italian mafia is infiltrating various sectors in Malta, including the gaming industry. Is the Malta police equipped to deal with such an incursion from organised crime if it had to take root?

At the moment these are mere claims, although they should be investigated. We should be focusing on intelligence-led policing but unfortunately we find ourselves having nearly half the 2,000-strong force serving in clerical or fixed-point duties. Instead, the police – down to the lowest constable – should be focusing time and energy on gathering intelligence, staying up to date on what is happening in their localities. No member of the force should have to be wasted on closing roads and standing by barriers or spending months on end guarding a door. But with regard to these claims you mentioned, we need to see where they are coming from and why.

But are the police equipped and qualified to rout out organised crime?

I think more investment is warranted, both in equipment as well as in the right people. We need more trained personnel and we need to recognise that better-trained and educated policemen should be recognised and rewarded. Why should a constable whose only duty is to drive officers around, or to man fixed-point guard positions, be paid the same as a constable who has shown an aptitude for investigation, arrests and prosecution? That is how you bring the morale down.

You mentioned pay. Are the police paid well?

Absolutely not. The pay is very poor, although we have seen some improvement recently. For example, it’s only been a couple of years that the fixed-point duty I mentioned is being considered overtime, instead of being used to punish or ostracise constables. I can speak from personal experience, because when I was a constable I was posted at the Valletta police station and I recall being given fixed-point duty at a building’s door for five straight months, and I can tell you I did not learn anything there. Anyway, we are currently fighting for a sectorial agreement and we are insisting that higher salaries are a must, across all grades, because even the wages for the higher grades are a joke. I am confident that an agreement will be reached.

Is the prosecution a burden for officers?

Definitely, especially for inspectors. Instead of investing all his time in the investigation itself, one ends up worrying about the arraignment document, the compilation of evidence hearings, how to present the case and which witnesses to call. It is why I believe there should be an independent prosecution unit, with links to the police force. Let’s face it, we would not be reinventing the wheel, this is what happens abroad.

We’ve mentioned the duties of the police and the public’s expectations. But two weeks ago, we were given a stark reminder of the risks the police face, when Constable Simon Schembri, a traffic policeman, was run over by a vehicle and grievously injured. That vehicle, a Mercedes E-Class, was being driven by a 17-year-old, who therefore had no driving licence and no insurance but who was already known to the police. How did that accident affect you and the Corps?

I still get emotional when I think about it. On Tuesday, on his request, I went to visit him at the ICU and I found that he and his wife are still clinging to hope. But people need to understand that this had been waiting to happen and we’ve been saying this for a long time. The arrogance we face is out of this world. Everyone is like a cowboy. Go out in your car and you’ll come across people who’ll cuss you, others will react if you use your vehicle’s horn, some will give you the finger … Overall there is no restraint. And I tie to what I said earlier. If you couple this atmosphere with continuous attacks on and criticism of the police force, we still have to face the public. And I repeat the Opposition has every right and duty to criticise any individual but still … they are making us powerless to face the people …

Some have said the Opposition is to blame for the accident because of its criticism…

No, that’s wrong and no one can be held responsible in that regard. But if you keep pushing only one sentiment and argument, you put everyone under one umbrella.

But how is it possible that a 17-year-old was freely driving such a vehicle on our roads?

We see this all the time, especially since people like this would have been arraigned numerous times before on related charges.

How many drivers under 18 do you reckon there are on the roads?

There are many of them, a lot. And there also many drivers who are over 18 but who had their licence revoked. Back to the case at hand, I cannot and will never condemn the teenager himself but I do condemn the act. Did you know he dragged the police constable along for 400 metres? I believe in the judicial system, in suspended sentences, conditional discharge and the other new procedures that have been introduced, but if you have someone who breaks the law, breaks it again and again, over and over, justice must ultimately be served. You should take the teen … in this case, at 17, his licence is already suspended, but until when? Until he turns 18?

The Opposition has every right and duty to criticise any individual but still… they are making us powerless to face the people…

What about the vehicles they own and drive?

That’s another thing. When you see this teen – and many others like him, I can assure you – driving these expensive and powerful cars … when we see the cases go nowhere, our morale takes a further hit, because we work hard to bring some cases to court, but we see a lot of arrogance all around us. But if a policeman stops someone driving without a seatbelt, you don’t expect that driver to come out of the vehicle to attack you. What about that policeman who was punched in the mouth and had his teeth broken? Or the other who had his jaw broken and was eating through a straw for three weeks? Another one was bitten and could not even kiss his loved ones while he got tested for any diseases…

Which brings us to the question of insurance for police officers…

I was the one who first brought up the need for insurance, bodycams and other equipment. As I did with last week’s solidarity march in Valletta.

How important was that event?

It was great to see the solidarity shown to the Corps, and not only by the country’s top dignitaries and public figures, but also by the general public. Already I had mothers of police officers coming up to me, telling me they didn’t want their son working traffic duty any longer. But I told them, “No, we are police officers, we go down but we get up again.” We do our duty but, with all due respect, we are paying a high price for it. That is why we need the insurance. We have spoken to the minister, and there is a lot of good will, even thanks to the input of the Prime Minister.

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