Friday 24 March 2023

May the (Police) Force be with you

This column first appeared in Malta Today

*UPDATE: since this was written the identity of the drunk driver has been made public

Any time there is a crime committed or circumstances surrounding a tragic accident which requires Police action and prosecution, the cynical comments on social media are generally of a defeatist nature, summed up by a dismissive scoff: “what’s the point? Those responsible will get away with it anyway.”

The same happens for other matters too, from reporting domestic disputes to issues between landlords/tenants to a general breach of law and order: “don’t bother calling the Police, they won’t come, they won’t help, they won’t follow up”.

Now, obviously these are sweeping statements which are unfair to those Police officers who do their jobs properly and who fulfil their duties to serve and protect as they should. However, it is fair to say that the general public perception of our Police Force is not a positive one. The lack of faith in the Police is further reinforced when we read stories such as the ones which emerged this week.

When 70-year-old Irish man David Cooley, was run over by a driver in Malta in 2019, the Police had taken the driver in for questioning and he had failed a breathalyser test. The man’s alcohol level was allegedly five times the legal limit and as a result of his actions Cooley sustained extensive severe injuries and was left disabled, and in a wheelchair. According to his layer Daniel Wall, “There has been no prosecution to date in Malta. David left Malta in an air ambulance in April 2019. Since then, there has been no communication from the police service in Malta or the Malta Justice Department”.
This week, he was awarded €3.1million by the Irish High Court but only because Cooley successfully sued the driver’s insurance company. But, please note, the judgement which awarded him compensation was handed down in Ireland, not Malta.

My thoughts on reading this came thick and fast, as I’m sure they did for all of you. What has happened to this case at the local level? Will the drunk driver be prosecuted? Will we ever know who it was*? Is he still driving on our streets? The questions are endless and are all too familiar now in such cases where drunk drivers seem to brush themselves off and and walk away scot free, leaving broken bodies and fatalities in their wake. I am not referring to this specific case, but one cannot blame the public for the inevitable rumours which start swirling around, suggesting that the culprit probably has connections and can get away with keeping things hushed up and out of the official Police report and hence, out of the media.

Another glaring example is the ongoing trial of Ryan Schembri, the former owner of MORE supermarket who fled the island because of mounting debts running into millions, and who is being charged with money laundering and fraud. He was only caught after 8 years because he was issued a speeding ticket in Scotland. The Malta Police were informed of his whereabouts by the Scottish Police last month, he was arrested on an international arrest warrant (which was only issued on 11 April of this year) and he was extradited to Malta to face charges. But get this – the Police had been informed of Schembri’s movements long before this. They knew he was in Dubai, but apparently there is no extradition agreement with the UAE. However, according to Court testimony, in 2017 the UK police had informed the Maltese police that Schembri had travelled from Dubai to UK and this is where it all becomes suspicious….they simply did not act on this information.

In this case there is not even any need for speculation; we know exactly who Ryan Schembri is related to, so you can’t blame Joe Public for feeling bitter, frustrated and disillusioned that the law is not the same for all of us. In this day and age of advanced technology, the ability to trace a person’s digital footprints and the speed with which Europol and Interpol can communicate with each other, hunting down a fugitive is not impossible if investigators are serious about finding him. Schembri did not even bother to hide his identity and used his real name to set up companies in England. In fact, a quick search of one of the companies mentioned, Bors Trading Ltd, openly shows Ryan Schembri’s name and an address registered in London. And, just to remind you….the Police knew he was in the UK five years ago.
As the details emerged in Court, presiding magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech insisted that the original police officers responsible for the unit be brought in to testify on the apparent inaction. It was only when Angelo Gaga’ took over as Police Commissioner that things started changing. A new team of investigators took over the case in 2020 after the previous Police officers were seen to be dragging their feet on financial crime cases, while the Head of the Economic Crimes Unit and Assistant Commissioner Ian Abdilla was first removed from his ECU post and then suspended in 2021 for his failure to investigate politicians exposed in the Panama Papers. In other words, Konrad Mizzi and the infamous Keith Schembri, Ryan’s cousin. It is yet to be seen whether Abdilla will face criminal charges.

Unfortunately, however, faith in the Police Force continued to be corroded even further this week with the news that three Police officers had tested positive for cocaine. Rather than face the music, they have resigned. A fourth officer was found to be under the influence of alcohol during working hours and is currently facing disciplinary proceedings.
One might say, well it’s a good thing they were caught, but it does not bring much comfort to learn that mandatory drug tests were only introduced for Police officers last year. So we have to ask: what was happening before? How many officers were out there on duty supposedly to ensure that we are all safe and that everyone is obeying the law, but who were actually breaking the law themselves by being under the influence of some illicit substance or other? And I hate to imagine what an officer who is high on drugs is capable of doing in a volatile situation.

Along the years, there have been other instances, some more serious than others, of the Police bungling up the case for the prosecution, either by not presenting enough evidence, or through administrative mistakes which allow a legal technicality to overthrow a judgement on appeal. That it happens occasionally can be understood, but that it happens so frequently makes one sit up and take notice. Is it incompetence (which is bad enough) or is it deliberate so that the accused will be cleared of all charges, which is potentially more disturbing and dangerous for our justice system?

The worst aspect of all this, of course, is that the bad apples have smeared the reputation of the entire Police Force, where there are many officers who are truly respecting their uniform and their badge. Unfortunately, the good ones rarely make the news, and somehow in people’s minds, it is not always enough to compensate or balance out the corruption or the behaviour of cops who have gone off the rails. Weeding out the bad ones is crucial if the public is ever going to feel that police officers who are there to ostensibly ensure that law and order are kept in the country, do just that.

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