Lawrence Cutajar, a career police officer, has resigned as police commissioner after a tumultuous four years at the helm. 

Mr Cutajar was appointed as acting police commissioner in April 2016 by former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. 

He was handed the role just weeks after his predecessor walked away from a request to investigate former officials Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi over suspected corruption and money laundering. 

Mr Cutajar’s perceived proximity to the Labour government did little to shake off fears that the police would carry out sensitive investigations without fear or favour. 

His reluctance to go after Mr Schembri and Dr Mizzi soon earned him the label of being a government puppet by then Opposition leader Simon Busuttil.

With little investigative experience of his own, Mr Cutajar was never one to get involved in the nitty-gritty of a case, no matter how major. 

The police commissioner was famously pictured nonchalantly dining at a traditional rabbit restaurant as allegations of money laundering and political corruption at the now-shuttered Pilatus Bank hit the media. 

Police only descended on the bank in April 2017 after the prime minister requested an inquiry the terms of which were tightly limited in scope. 

The big test

Months later, Mr Cutajar would face the biggest test of his career. 

Journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination put the world’s eyes on the Maltese police. 

Days after the murder, Mr Cutajar, who was always media-shy, bumbled through a press conference that did little to instil confidence in the investigation. 

When 10 people were hauled in for questioning in December 2017, it was Dr Muscat who fronted the announcement, with the police commissioner nowhere to be seen. 

Just this month, Mr Cutajar faced the humiliation of former commissioner John Rizzo testifying in court that ongoing criminal probes were never discussed with prime ministers and investigations into reports on financial crime were always ordered.

The lack of any major breakthroughs in the case throughout 2018 continued to raise doubts about the police commissioner’s will to crack the case. 

He, as well as the government, steadfastly ignored demands by civil society and the European Parliament to resign. 

Police ineptitude on financial crime

On financial crime, the police under Mr Cutajar have been particularly weak.

An intelligence report linking murder suspect Yorgen Fenech to 17 Black was never seriously investigated by the police. 

Times of Malta revealed in December how Ian Abdilla, who rose through the ranks under Joseph Muscat to head the economic crimes unit, botched a request for information about 17 Black sent to the United Arab Emirates. 

A 2019 report by Monveyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering body, laid bare the police’s ineptitude when faced with financial crimes. 

It noted how the three suspected triggermen in Ms Caruana Galizia’s murder were well known to CID inspectors for their involvement in various criminal activities and had been charged in court “on numerous occasions” for different offences.

Following their arraignment for the murder, initial intelligence revealed that one of the suspects, together with two close relatives, was unemployed but seemed to afford a lavish lifestyle which did not reflect their true legitimate financial situation.

Assessors found the police have the investigative tools and access to a variety of databases required to obtain relevant information on a suspect’s assets, including property searches, transport and company registries.

Yet, such investigations are rarely carried out due to “resource and training issues”.

How did Cutajar respond to relentless criticism? 

The commissioner was never one to acknowledge shortcomings in the police force and his own leadership. 

He defiantly insisted his track record spoke for itself when pressed about his achievements as police boss in 2018. 

“What I can say is that the police last year broke records when it comes to drug hauls, and murders that had not been investigated for 200 years were solved,” he said.

“But for some reason or the other, I was still criticised,” Mr Cutajar added.

In May 2019, he said that Malta was a safer country than it was a few years ago. 

“We have solved murders which up to some years ago we thought we would never solve, and I feel proud that despite economic growth and a huge influx of tourists, in 2018 crime fell by 7% – the largest drop since 2009,” he said.

Muscat his biggest fan? 

One person who steadfastly stuck by Mr Cutajar throughout his turbulent term as police commissioner was the former prime minister. 

Dr Muscat always characterised calls for Mr Cutajar’s resignations in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal and Ms Caruana Galizia’s murder as partisan attacks designed to undermine the country’s institutions. 

He portrayed the dramatic arrest of Yorgen Fenech on his luxury yacht in November 2019 as positive proof that the institutions, including the police, were functioning as they should be.

The prime minister’s power to appoint and remove a police chief has led for calls for the system to be reformed. 

Prime Minister Robert Abela has vowed to implement reforms touted by the Venice Commission “without delay”.

He, however, disagrees with proposals for the sensitive role to be approved by a two-thirds majority in parliament. 

Instead, he says the next police commissioner should face a parliamentary committee to scrutinise his suitability for the post. 

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