Thursday 21 June 2018

Trust in the Police needs to be re-built again

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

A lot has been written about why there seems to be so much antagonism, mistrust and even hatred towards the authorities in general and the police force in particular. 

And while what I wrote in my last article (Enough is Enough) on Thursday still stands i.e. that the police force needs to be respected by everyone in order not to encourage a laissez-faire culture where people feel they can get away with anything, there is also the other side of the coin to consider.

For many people who have been let down by the police for one reason or another, the outpouring of support we have seen this week is a bittersweet pill to swallow.  On the one hand, they can empathize completely with PC Simon Schembri whose mangled arm had to be amputated after he was dragged and crushed in the horrific hit and run accident.  And yet, recalling their own negative experiences when the police did not come to their aid, they still feel hard done by, which is understandable. It is also useless telling them that a traffic police officer like PC Schembri is in a completely different division to, say, a world-weary police constable stationed at a district police station where the phone never stops ringing, and complaints never stop pouring in, who shrugs when they come in to file a police report. 

For the average citizen, the police are the police – and much like people get a bad impression of all bus drivers when they come across a rude, surly bus driver, so too do they tend to get a bad impression of all police officers if they happen to deal with a PC who is incompetent, uncaring or brusque with them.  I have in mind, in particular women who call to report a domestic violence incident, only to be told that they have to come down to file the report physically themselves in person.  Imagine a woman fearing for her life because her husband or boyfriend is out of control, and being told she must come to the police station?  Or else, the cases when a woman does go the station, only for her complaint not to be treated seriously and for her to be brushed off and told to go make up with her husband like a good little wifey? 

And if you think these things do not continue to happen, think again – or better still, just ask around. 

Of course, this could be due to lack of human resources, and an escalation of domestic violence reports as a result of more awareness, which means that police officers are genuinely short-staffed, while many have never been properly trained on how to handles these cases.  However, for the woman who needs help right then and there, all of this is immaterial.  

After all, who can blame the public for harbouring such mistrust of the police who do not take take action on very serious issues, only to see no less than three police officers showing up to remove a woman who was sunbathing on the Triton fountain?  

The same can be said for those who are victims of other crimes who feel woefully not served: those who have had their homes burgled for example, only to see the culprits (if they ever caught) walk away with a suspended sentence. Here it is not just the police who are to blame but the justice system itself, whose laws and sentencing often leave citizens perplexed and confused. The sentences handed down for manslaughter, sexual assault, child abuse and other serious crimes also often leave the public stunned by their inadequacies.

When it comes to police protection within the community, again, many ordinary people have resigned themselves to the fact that there is no one out there who can help them: whether it is rambunctious teenagers making a cacophony of noise late at night, menacing, bullying neighbours who threaten you if you dare look at them twice, or even something as simple as temporary tenants next door who disregard rubbish collection times, turning a once nice neighbourhood into a slum.  In the hierarchy of crimes, these latter ones are mere misdemeanors, but when taken as a whole, collectively, day after day, they serve to reinforce the impression that the police are unable to get a handle on order and discipline.

Other countries, which we admire so much when we take vacations abroad for their pristine streets, green, open spaces and adherence to rules which work with clocklike precision, do not function like this simply just as a matter of chance.  It is a result of decades and centuries in which those in charge have realized that society cannot live in a civilized manner unless law and order is followed and maintained.   There is no mysterious genetic secret to it either, so let us please stop with the “Mediterranean temperament” excuse.  When you are born into a disciplined world, where your parents follow the rules, because that is what one is supposed to do, then breaking rules, regulations or laws goes against the grain.  

To remove this perception of ‘anything goes’ the Police Force has several obstacles in front of it.  First, I think there needs to be a major drive to communicate better with the public, to explain what procedures should be followed in which instance, and especially to outline the repercussions of people filing false claims, from women filing fake reports against estranged husbands, to the bomb hoax which cost who knows how much in wasted time and resources, when the police would have been better deployed elsewhere. 

There also needs to be a publicity campaign to recruit more police officers because it is clear that the existing contingent cannot cope with our growing population and the resulting increase in crime all across the board. 

Above all, the Police Force needs to re-built the trust which has been chipped away and lost over the years, which is no easy feat. It can only do so by striving to be better and exemplary at all times, while weeding out the bad ones who have no place in the Force. 

How many more Liams are out there?

According to the Court report in The Times, “Liam Debono pleaded not guilty to, among other charges, attempted murder, causing grievous injuries, causing offences against a public officer, driving a Mercedes registered as ‘garaged’, with false number plates, driving without valid insurance cover, driving without the owner’s consent and driving without a licence. He was also accused of disobeying police orders, driving without a seat belt, using a vehicle licence disk pertaining to a Volkswagen Polo, breaching a number of traffic regulations, receiving stolen property (i.e number plates and car licence) and being a relapser….They pointed out that Debono had given investigators different addresses. He had also not learnt from past mistakes and had several pending court cases….The teenager, now in custody, was “known to the police” and had been pulled over for driving dangerously and without a licence in the past, the police sources said.”

Apart from the hit-and-run itself, it is this last line which has unleashed a livid rage which is almost visceral in its intensity against this underage driver who left PC Simon Schembri for dead.  The comments I have read of what people would do to him if they had their way, made for chilling reading, almost as chilling as the dead expression in Liam Debono’s eyes.  

This is what happens when the public feels that the police and the justice system have failed us, making it possible for someone like Liam to be driving recklessly on the roads until that fateful day last week.  The outrage turns into a a lynch mob, a thirst for vigilante justice, and while some may say these were just outbursts on Facebook, who is  to say whether someone will make that leap and take the law literally into their own hands?

It is true that deviant behaviour and juvenile delinquency have always existed, but the worrying trend is when deviancy becomes the norm. 

How many more Liams are out there, living on the fringes of society, drifting without purpose, emotionally detached and unable to feel any sort of empathy or compassion because, for whatever reason, they have failed to connect on a human level, but have hardened their hearts and shut down completely?  There are those who argue that he deserves no sympathy for what he did, and I completely understand this sentiment. But the Liams we have living among us, whether we like it or not, are also OUR problem, because one day, through no fault of our own, our paths might cross with theirs and another tragedy will strike. 

Meanwhile on Friday, I was relieved to see that the three people who were so shockingly callous, mocking the accident, and inciting further violence on police officers, were arraigned in Court. I cannot even give their comments the benefit of the doubt as the ”stupid foolishness of youth” either, as it turned out that their ages were 21, 24 and 28 – not exactly silly, thoughtless, adolescents.  

It is about time the message is conveyed that heartless, flippant comments on Facebook in the wake of a tragic accident result in consequences.  

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