Less than 12 months ago Michael Cassar became the fourth Police Commissioner in two-and-a-half years. He speaks to Kurt Sansone about his vision.
What is your evaluation of the police force today?
With pride I say that the police force is moving forward. The image has been improving and we are getting results. Respect comes as a result of us delivering. The unfortunate part is that there is a lot of unjustified negativity about the police corps, which conditions people. There are still things that have to improve and some of the criticism is justified.
Not everyone in the force is pulling the same rope, for various reasons, which are not political. There are some who are more eager to work than others. I recently told our new recruits that they are our ambassadors. Our front-liners have to be customer-friendly. For the individual filing a report that case is the most important thing in the world and he should be given attention.
People often complain they are kept in the dark after reporting a crime. Do they have a right to know what developments took place?
Yes they do but this has to be qualified because there are instances when an investigation is ongoing and it is not always ideal to inform the complainant of developments. In these circumstances the most we could say is that the investigation is ongoing.
The police force has had four commissioners in two-and-a-half years. Did this lead to a lack of continuation that lowered morale?
A situation like this automatically creates instability because every police commissioner has his ideas and vision of where and how to take the police force forward. But the normal every day work of the police force continued throughout this period of change.
What about morale?
There may have been differences in approach by the individual commissioners that could have conditioned the way some officers delivered results.
A number of experienced police officers are on their way out of the force. What is happening?
I had warned about this situation years ago. The collective agreement expires in 2016 and many officers who did not retire after 25 years of service would have waited for the last year of the collective agreement when the increments would be the highest to retire from the police force. In this way they would retire with a higher two-thirds pension. Unfortunately, I had to be Police Commissioner when this predicament materialised. But otherwise I would not pin down this situation to any extraordinary event.
Are police wages adequate?
They could be better.
Corruption becomes attractive for people on low wages who are investigating crimes that involve thousands and possibly millions of euros.
I disagree because a corrupt person is intrinsically corrupt irrespective of how much he is earning. Anybody who wants to work in the police force has to do so because he wants to be of service to others. Unfortunately, there are some who join the force because they view it as another job. I feel the esprit de corps has weakened and we have to strengthen it again.
We have to lead by example in every rank. I have always respected the police hierarchy but I do not believe I am more important than others. Police leaders have to motivate their underlings and create teams rather than cliques. Cliques are bad and I detest them. Police leaders across the board have to create a working environment that motivates people.
You had issued a memo in the wake of the Daniel Zammit inquiry findings by Judge Michael Mallia asking all police officers to declare any business interests. What came out of this exercise?
The law had always been clear about the involvement of police officers in commercial activity but I wanted to make it clearer with everyone. There were very few police officers who declared commercial interests. Anyone who failed to make a declaration will face disciplinary action if found out.
Did the declarations made by the few worry you?
Not at all. They were all legitimate.
There are things a police officer cannot do, even if they are legal
The inquiry findings created the impression that many police officers had business ties and the practice had gone unnoticed and unpunished for too long.
Most of the infringements were not related to business ties but to part-time work for which no authorisation would have been sought.
We have often heard of police officers working as part-time security officers…
That is wrong and would not have been approved. A police officer cannot work as a part-time security guard because it conflicts directly with his police work. The individual joins the police force and knows what is expected of him. And this is the mentality we have to change: the force cannot adapt to the individual needs of its members but every individual has to adapt to the exigencies of the force. There are things a police officer cannot do, even if they are legal.
What about the use of social media by the police?
There is a line which every police officer must not cross even when using social media and the line is not dictated only by what is legally permissible. I have taken disciplinary action against various members of the force because they crossed that line. You are a police officer 25 hours-a-day… and I am not mistaking the number.
Your predecessors indicated a preference for regional police stations instead of offices in every town or village. Do you agree with this?
I have always been against having a police station in every locality. Ironically, under my wing we opened more police stations but I believe any such change has to happen slowly because it requires a shift in mentality. I want to see the police uniform on the street not behind a desk. A police officer on the beat that has developed a relationship with the neighbourhood serves as a stronger deterrent. Patrols can be done on foot, using Segways or scooters.
Do you have the resources to go down this road?
The human resources are already there. At a minimum, a small police station has to be manned by six police officers. If you were to ask me whether I have another six officers my answer would be No. But if those six get out onto the street then the resources are already available. I am working on this.
Will local councils understand such a move?
No, and this is why it has to happen gradually. Everybody feels more at ease with having a police station but an increase in resources that delivers results will eventually convince people. However, it would not be healthy if I implemented the change overnight.
Over the past five years we have witnessed a string of high profile murders that remain unsolved. Are you satisfied with the level of investigations or are we seeing a police force that is overwhelmed because of depleted numbers?
Over the past years the laws have changed to allow suspects access to a lawyer and as a result police investigations have had to change as well. Investigative work has become more difficult. But I want to go for intelligence-led policing, which entails information gathering and analysis of data to spot patterns and behaviours. I can never be satisfied because the moment that happens is the moment you relax.
What has to change for the police to go towards intelligence-led policing?
A lot. The structure of how information is collected, from where, how it is analysed, to whom it is disseminated and how it is stored are all elements that have to change. We need analysts who are constantly looking at the information. Having said that, the traditional methods of investigation will still have to be used.
The Economic Crimes Unit has taken centre stage with a number of big investigations into fraud and money laundering, but how well-resourced is it?
The unit was understaffed when I was responsible for it some years ago. It was down to just four inspectors. Today I have increased the number to nine inspectors – some of them are studying at university – and we are in the process of re-organising the unit because economic crimes are the most prevalent in today’s world. It is my long term goal to give this unit adequate resources. I have dedicated staff working there and the intention is to complement them with specialised professionals in the field. Analytic tools also have to be introduced.
A man was recently found with a bed sheet around his neck while being held at the depot. You decided the police corps should step aside and leave the magistrate to investigate the case. However, have you since changed any internal procedures to prevent this from happening again?
When I was appointed Police Commissioner the lock-up was the first place I visited. Things were working well but I ordered immediate investment to improve matters. Just before the case happened we had an inspection by the Council of Europe’s human rights committee and after a meticulous exercise, for the first time the lock-up received full marks in the evaluation. But despite every effort to prevent certain deaths it is impossible to predict the intention of every person. I’ve ordered call bells to be introduced in every cell. I have no problem with introducing cameras inside the cells but this may raise privacy issues. We are responsible for every person who enters the depot.
Police leaders have to… create teams rather than cliques [in the force]
After a Libyan man carried out a knife attack in Paceville, police presence was increased. But was this a knee-jerk reaction until the clamour died down?
Ever since I was appointed Commissioner I have always given instructions for Paceville to have an adequate number of police officers. I know the difficulties that arise there.
What is the adequate number over the weekend?
I am currently assigning 20 officers on Friday and Saturday and slightly less on Sunday because of a reduced workload. This was in place before the incident but over the summer months the numbers were lower because of the myriad commitments the police had due to village feasts.
Does this mean that come next summer the numbers will drop again?
I do not want to be inconsistent. I cannot tell you I will have 20 officers just to look good. I will have to evaluate the situation again because we may need to have more than 20 as a result of a worsening situation. But over a long-term basis we are discussing with stakeholders the best way forward, including residents and club owners.
It is often alleged the police in Paceville are too close to bar owners and this prevents them doing their job properly.
I do not agree. I detest familiarity but it stands to reason and is important that police officers know bar owners because it aids better policing through cooperation. But whenever we have had cases of bouncers being involved in illegalities, police officers have charged these people and testified against them.
The police special assignment group was dismantled by your predecessor and incorporated into the Rapid Intervention Unit. Will you be revisiting that decision?
In this day and age we need people who are specialised in certain areas such as hostage taking, which means that the police force has to have a group of highly-trained people. Whether that group of officers forms a standalone unit or is part of another branch has to be studied further and this evaluation is ongoing.
Does the force have a group of highly-trained people?
The country will soon host important international events like the EU-Africa summit and CHOGM that will put additional demands on security. Are we prepared?
Yes we are.
Is society losing its respect towards police officers?
Yes. The problem is that a lot of negativity leads to an erosion of trust in the police force. But on an individual basis many of us receive letters of appreciation from citizens thanking us for going beyond the call of duty. The police force, like anywhere else, has its bad apples. But the problem is that whenever action is taken to remove those bad apples, and I have always investigated wrongdoing at whatever rank it was alleged, the action is interpreted in a negative light. If anything, these measures should be interpreted as an added value for the force.
In February police officers obtained the right to join a trade union. How is the police force coping with this development?
This is a new concept for a disciplined corps and both sides are learning to live this new reality. Whatever improves the conditions of police officers is positive but this has to be balanced with the obligations of every person towards the corps and the force’s obligation towards society.
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