Clement La Primaudaye was police chief in the 1890s at a time when the police, like the government, were immune from liability for damages in exercising their functions.
In 1894, a workshop at the back of a jewellery owned by a Mr Busuttil was searched by the police, who were clearly oblivious to the value of the casts and gold dust they were mishandling.
Busuttil filed a case against La Primaudaye, claiming damages, arguing that the officers carrying out the search were incompetent. He lost because this presumption could only be rebutted by demonstrating that the officers were already incompetent even before joining the ranks.
The issue came back to haunt the top cop in a 1988 appeal, ‘Grech v Commissioner of Police’. The good doctor was prevented from leaving the country on a flight by the airport police because of an alleged impediment of departure.
The problem was that although this impediment had been cancelled the information hadn’t reached the police.
Worse still, a month earlier, Grech was also wrongfully arrested by the same police upon arriving in Malta.
The Appeals Court noted that the police inspector and sergeant were slow in acting on both occasions and failed to duly update the police register, describing this as “gross incompetence”.
The court ordered the police commissioner to pay around Lm1,500 in damages, which is equivalent to €4,000 nowadays.
The dismal mishandling of basic police work resurfaced in ‘Pisani v State Advocate and Commissioner of Police’ last month. It truly opens a Pandora’s Box in terms of police nonfeasance and misfeasance and beats both the Busuttil and Grech cases put together by far.
The first point is what the court described as “repeated victimisation”, which is the worst certificate an entity born to serve and to protect can ever get. This is sad, considering that the police oath of office pledges loyalty to the ‘People and to the Constitution of Malta’, apart from the Republic.
It is ironic how readily the police use the Schengen Information System for example, but to share in-house intelligence is a no-no
Secondly, the focus now is clearly that of human rights, in particular the right to private and family life of the domestic violence victim.
Human rights policing is therefore supreme to any form or style of policing. It’s the gold standard, let that be known.
Third, the omissions were so blatant that the court described them as “nuqqasijiet lampanti”. How can a system of so many checks and balances, supported even further by police governance and strategic planning, miss out on such a core exercise as the sharing of intelligence?
Police intelligence, not one sourced by the security services; it’s that kind of in-house info that is already in the police reporting system and yet for some reason is not accessible.
It is ironic how readily the police use the Schengen Information System for example, but to share in-house intelligence is a no-no. Some of it is actually hoarded because some branches don’t trust their neighbours and because intelligence is power: I have seen it before as the data protection officer in the mid-noughties.
I had to register all existing databases with the data protection commissioner and keep tabs on potential misuse. It made me a total pain to my colleagues for arguing against their blatant practice of data overprotection. Will they listen to the court?
The final point is the police’s fear of dealing with any law that is not criminal. I started lecturing police in-service staff in family law last year. My work as a child advocate and at the Civil Law Department helps me bridge the infamous gap between criminal and civil law.
In fact I was struck by the observation where the inspector said, “niġi bejn ħaltejn”. That’s the perfect description of the gap between the two spheres of law. But just an hour’s training in family law is peanuts.
The ‘Pisani Principle’ therefore establishes the positive obligation of the state to protect the vulnerable, and I hope the public service commission takes this into consideration in listing the selection criteria for the next police chief.
And let this be an eye-opener not just for the police, but for all government entities dealing with vulnerable persons. Identity Malta please take note.
Handle gold dust gently.
And kudos to all the Pisanis out there who have to go through blood, sweat and tears to show the system what really counts.
Mary Muscat is a lawyer who spent 13 years as an inspector with the Malta police force. She lectures at the University of Malta and the Academy for the Disciplined Forces.