Police officers feel “let down” by the Prime Minister after he called the Police Commissioner to warn that a repeat of the way protestors were handled at a recent demonstration would not be tolerated, senior officers have said.
“The feeling [among the corps] is that we are on our own on this. That if we face a backlash – for doing our job – then we will not be supported by the politicians in the future,” a senior officer told The Sunday Times of Malta.
The autonomous Police Board is probing whether officers from the Rapid Intervention Unit used excessive force when handling a group of protestors at the Planning Authority on Thursday. The officers have been accused of being violent when they dragged the demonstrators, carrying musical instruments and banners, out of a PA board meeting that later voted against controversial plans for another new fuel station outside the development zone.
Two of the activists were seen bleeding as they were forcibly removed from the building by the police. Footage of the incident went viral on social media, dividing public opinion over whether the police abused of their position or not.
Dr Muscat has been unequivocal when answering this question, saying he was disappointed by police’s “heavy-handedness”.
Sources yesterday said the Prime Minister contacted Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar in person after the incident was first reported. However, the commissioner, the sources said, indicated to Dr Muscat that he was not pleased with the position he was taking on the matter.
We cannot have a situation where police officers are not empowered to carry out their duty
Likewise, senior officers told this newspaper that many in the police corps were concerned that a similar incident could see them singled out in the future. They explained that when dealing with demonstrators involved in a protest or some act of civil disobedience, officers often had to walk a tightrope.
When a police officer’s orders were not followed by a demonstrator, it whittled away their moral authority. This, they admitted, could potentially result in an officer resorting to some level of “acceptable force”. However, if the civilian resists, and if the situation they find themselves in is tense, things could escalate beyond that.
“What is the counter scenario? Police officers afraid to do their job? We cannot have a situation where police officers are not empowered to carry out their duty,” one source said.
Meanwhile, political sources close to Dr Muscat pointed out how the incident at the Planning Authority was not favourable for the government.
They added that in the lead-up to the one-year anniversary since the car bomb murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, the government did not want to have to be dealing with allegations the police were intimidating or violent. “We are aware that this could be a problem moving forward and we wanted to pre-empt it by making it clear that heavy handedness by the police would not be tolerated,” one source said.
Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia meanwhile has said that “officers should always use as little force as possible. But this always depends on the circumstances they find themselves in”.
According to the Police Act, officers may use “moderate and proportionate force as may be necessary to ensure the observance of the laws”. The same law also says that the use of force is a “remedy of last resort” and shall only be used for the duration that is strictly necessary.
Pressure group Graffitti, involved in the incident, has said that its foremost concern remained the contentious fuel service station policy and the Planning Authority’s “offensive behaviour”, and not the police’s.
“Most police officers were simply doing their job. Though it is unfortunate that a few of the officers from the RIU went overboard by grabbing and dragging activists from their neck, and hurling a drum at their face, we urge everyone to focus on the most pressing issue,” the group said yesterday.
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