The Minister for Home Affairs, National Security and Law Enforcement, Byron Camilleri, explains how law enforcement has had to adapt to the new realities created by the COVID-19 pandemic and explains what future reforms will be taking place.
How is law enforcement helping to battle the spread of COVID-19?
While life, for some, is at a standstill, frontline workers – from police patrols to soldiers delivering groceries, and firefighters decontaminating vehicles and buildings – are facing a new normal. They all reflect the different ways in which law enforcement has stepped in to help combat the spread of COVID-19. While this might not be their traditional role, law enforcement officers have stepped out of their daily routine in times of crisis to help out wherever it was needed. Every effort helps. Before the outbreak of COVID19 in Malta, the Ministry had already put a contingency plan into place, allowing all entities to be well-prepared for any eventuality. This meant that we had a strategy ready to be implemented as soon as the first case in Malta was found. Moreover, in an effort to manage the crisis, we gradually rolled out measures as the situation developed.
What was the first significant operational change related to COVID-19?
Officers have been carrying out spot-checks to enforce mandatory quarantine regulations and inspections to ensure that there are no gatherings of more than three people in public places. In fact, we have increased police presence in our streets to encourage people to maintain a safe distance between each other. I must say that I am extremely proud of the teamwork shown by all disciplined forces. The Civil Protection Department, the Police Force, the Armed Forces of Malta, Correctional Officers and LESA’s community officers are working round the clock to ensure our safety. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.
Does this mean that police work has only been limited to issues arising from the pandemic?
Besides playing a crucial role in fighting the spread locally, we must realise that the police, like the Armed Forces and other entities, are also dealing with other challenges. Criminal offences tend to follow societal trends. For instance, cybercrime will most likely increase during the next few weeks. An increase in scams due to a high demand for certain products will be expected. There are also issues related to fear and anxiety: with more people staying inside their homes, some might find themselves in more vulnerable positions. We’ve already had two cases of deliverymen being robbed at knife-point whilst on the job.
We might not have witnessed many similar cases in the past but in the current particular circumstances, crimes are taking place under different conditions. I am satisfied to note that the police responded immediately and apprehended those involved. It is also for these reasons that our police officers are conducting more patrols on a daily basis.
The focus of the day-to-day operations has, inevitably, shifted. However, we are determined to keep offering essential services albeit in a different manner. For instance, police reports can be done online or via the 112MT app. Remote reports are encouraged in cases when an immediate police presence is not required. This might not be the procedure we are accustomed to, however, the spread of COVID-19 has caused us to change the way we work.
Before the outbreak there were plans to implement certain reforms. Are these still going to happen or is everything on hold?
As Minister for Home Affairs, my focus is to implement much-needed reforms in some of our country’s most crucial institutions. COVID-19 might affect certain timelines since we needed to prioritise other issues. However, these reforms will still be enacted. In fact, we are already seeing the first reform being implemented.
For the first time in history, the Police Commissioner will be selected through a public competition, a process which has already been approved by Parliament. By changing the way the Police Commissioner is appointed, we are increasing the level of scrutiny in the selection process for this pivotal role in the Police Force.
How will the new method work?
The process is fairly simple and goes well beyond the recommendations made by the Venice Commission. A public call will be issued by the Public Service Commission (PSC). The Commission will then evaluate the applications and make a shortlist of two candidates to be referred to Cabinet.
When the final selection is made, and the best person is selected, the chosen candidate will be grilled by the Parliamentary Committee for Public Appointments, thereby being placed under the scrutiny of the highest institution of the country. In addition, I must point out that the chosen candidate will be facing the scrutiny of not only elected representatives but also of the general public as they can follow the grilling whilst proposing possible questions to be put forward by their MPs.
Is this according to the Venice Commission?
The Venice Commission did not propose any parliamentary procedure. However, as a Government, we felt that the country’s highest institution should play a role in this important decision. Furthermore, the Venice Commission also stated that the Prime Minister had the power to veto the chosen candidate. The Prime Minister has relinquished that right so as to ensure that the process remains fair and untarnished throughout. This is just the first step in a series of reforms that we aim to introduce to strengthen the rule of law in the country.
The Government launched a Cabinet Committee on Governance to propose changes to Maltese law in line with recommendations made by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and GRECO. This decision was welcomed internationally and further proves our commitment to delivering change. In the coming months, we will be proposing and implementing a reform in the Police Force.
We are living a new reality but, when you think about the future, are you at all optimistic?
Right now, I think it’s difficult for any of us to look on the bright side of things. Our economy is bearing the brunt of the impact and as a Government, we had to intervene with fiscal measures to try and safeguard people’s jobs. We do not know when this will all be over. However, I believe that, as a policymaker, it is my job to look to the future.
We cannot stop working to make this country a better place for its citizens. That is why we must use this time wisely and plan ahead. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of being prepared. As a Government we have always focused on being proactive rather than reactive and today’s reality proved us right. My message to readers is one of hope. We will get through this together and, once we do, we will all be better for it.
This interview was initially carried in the April edition of The Malta Business Observer