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'I told my wife to kiss the children goodbye'

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

A near-death experience and five months spent in hospital have injected Police Commissioner John Rizzo with a fresh enthusiasm for his job.

The police commissioner had it all planned out. He pencilled in the operation for June 19 to eliminate ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, and set aside two weeks from his busy schedule.

But he only returned to his office on November 1, after he spent nearly five months in hospital undergoing several interventions and, at one point, drifting between his bed and the afterworld as doctors worked to save him.

"I remember looking at my wife's face and telling her to kiss the children goodbye for me," he says, his voice cracking as his blue-grey eyes well up with tears.

"Those were the last words I remember. Then, I spent a frightening hour literally battling to survive.

"You feel like you're drowning, unable to breathe. Sometimes you manage to surface and gasp for air, but instead of getting relief you feel as if your lungs are going to explode. It is an inexplicable feeling. You're going in and out of consciousness, hearing voices of nurses and doctors in the distance."

Sitting back into the cream- coloured leather sofa at his office, located at the Police Headquarters in Floriana, Mr Rizzo stops for an interminable second to absorb his surroundings - a flickering Christmas tree, framed photographs of loved ones, and a small statue of Our Lady of Lourdes lit by a red church candle - as if to reassure himself the nightmare is over.

"Thank God it passed and I'm now healthy," he says, taking a deep breath reconfirming he is now in the clear.

Mr Rizzo, 53, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, which causes chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, seven years ago.

He spent years taking steroids, which led to water retention and bloating: "I always exercised and used to walk 10 kilometres a day before work. Everybody told me I was growing fat, but it was the result of treatment."

The condition, which developed about a year after he was appointed police commissioner, is likely to be a consequence of his stressful job and pressures.

He decided to live with ulcerative colitis for so long and never chose to undergo an operation because he thought, based on medical advice, that he would need to have a small bag permanently attached to his abdomen to collect stool once the large intestine was removed.

"I was given the advice I would have to remain with the bag - it would have destroyed me. It would have meant the end of my career. Psychologically, it would have crushed me to have a foreign body attached," he recalls.

In the past, this was the case, but advances in surgery have eliminated the need for a permanent bag. Instead, a second operation is carried out where the surgeon constructs a pouch inside, from the end of the small intestine.

Encouraged by fresh advice and a second opinion, Mr Rizzo sought to go under the knife. There was also the risk that, if left untreated, the disease would lead to colon cancer. He knew it would be complicated, but he never fathomed how bad it would get.

The first operation was a success and Mr Rizzo was planning on regaining his health to undergo a second intervention to remove the temporary bag. But on the day he was released from hospital, he suffered a pulmonary embolism - five blood clots in the lung that can be potentially lethal.

That was when things got complicated and his life was in the hands of the doctors.

"It was a really, really horrible experience. I pray and hope nobody has to endure what I did," he says.

After four days, he recovered but he was not yet out of the woods. Unfortunately, he had to be re-admitted to another ward with high fever. He underwent the second surgery immediately, instead of waiting six months as is normally the case.

"It was not a matter of recuperating at home. I spent five months in hospital attempting to recover from one complication or another. Now I thank God every minute I'm alive," he says.

"I feel as if I've been born again. I am full of enthusiasm and energy. Your life changes overnight. All of a sudden, I started looking at just the positive side of life. Even things I didn't enjoy before don't bother me now," he says, adding he never relished sitting for interviews before.

"I'm being honest," he says with a mischievous smile.

The thought of getting back on the job kept him going: "God only knows how much I prayed to regain my strength to return to work. It's rewarding to be able to be of service and to do something positive in life. How many hours can you spend in bed waiting, restless and uneasy, for some good or bad news?"

When he was unwell, people were speaking among themselves that he should retire, while others questioned whether he would be able to run the force due to his health condition, but he says he never heard such remarks.

"All I can say is I received all the support from my family and politicians. I never heard anything about retiring. On the contrary, everyone was encouraging me to return to work."

Mr Rizzo was back behind his desk just two weeks after his last operation, because he felt ready. He admits there was a time when he was so weak he could barely turn the sink's faucet, but he is slowly regaining his strength and although he is not fighting fit just yet, "I don't feel I'm far".

He looks back on that period as if five months have been completely erased from his life, and his regret is that his plans to redecorate his house before his 25-year-old daughter, Elaine, gets married in June were set back.

The lives of his wife Catherine and four children - Elaine, Keith, 24, Jeffrey, 18, and Kurt, 12 - was also put on hold as they never left his bedside.

"I have to make up for lost time," he says, adding he is back to whitewashing the house, despite doctors' warnings to take it easy.

"I feel healthy and I don't see anything impeding me from continuing with my duties."

Standing tall, past six feet, Mr Rizzo looks as if the ordeal has revived him and retiring is not on the agenda, even though he could have availed himself of this option after 25 years in the force.

He slipped into the police uniform 34 years ago, having been just one of just a few from his clique of friends in Cospicua who went on to study at secondary school. He went from the school bench to the force, and was immediately stationed at the "very lively" Strait Street - Malta's red light district, heaving with sailors and scantily-clad women.

Being thrown into the deep end, it was sink or swim, but he took on the challenge, working his way up from the lowest ranks until he reached the top.

Bursting with fresh enthusiasm, he is on a mission to rebuild the corps' reputation tarnished by allegations of beatings, uncouth behaviour and drugs - three officers were recently caught dabbling, while another was this month jailed for 16 years for trafficking.

"I'm worried when I hear about such incidents, but this does not mean they're all true. Some allegations do fall by the wayside. But every allegation worries me, since it's the perception that matters," he says.

Is he happy with the situation within the force?

"To be honest, I think we're doing well when it comes to tackling serious crimes, but not so well when dealing with people's complaints on issues such as anti-social behaviour and small contraventions," he says.

"Sometimes, we're judged on this, and rightly so. If you are trying to sleep when the music is pounding in the early hours, you certainly cannot be bothered about what crimes the police resolved. You just want to get some rest and the problem of loud music sorted.

"We're trying to tackle people's criticism because this is where I fear we're failing as police. You have some 2,000 'ambassadors' out there and their behaviour reflects on the force. One of my priorities is to improve the image, but it's not easy," he admits.

He insists his objective is to ensure every officer on the beat performs at every level and disciplinary action will be taken if they fail to maintain order, be it taking greater action against underage drinking or dealing respectfully with a person who shows up at a police station to file a report.

While Mr Rizzo was still on his hospital bed, Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici faced a barrage of questions in Parliament after he said that, between January and September, no minors were caught consuming alcohol.

However, over the same period there had been 108 under-16s found in entertainment establishments in St Julian's and Victoria, which exposed an anomaly.

Mr Rizzo is clearly upset with the situation because he knows officers issue warnings to minors - "unless you taste his drink, it's impossible to know for a fact the youngster has vodka in his coke" - yet no figures are kept, and this is something he plans to tackle immediately.

"The employer pays us to perform and we're paid from taxpayers' money. If we don't show results, we're failing, and our officers need to understand this. We are doing some very good work, but we can do a lot better - we have to be more vigilant, especially with small contraventions that mean so much to people."

Mr Rizzo says he gets reports on officers' incorrect behaviour every day, and while some are serious, others are less so. Disciplinary sittings are held twice or three times a month where the officer is brought forward.

"In the past month, we took some three people with drug-related crimes to court. We cannot allow anybody in the force to abuse of drugs," he insists.

In a bid to tackle such situations, for the first time in the force's history, Mr Rizzo introduced regular training twice a month for four hours a day in customer care, police ethics, criminal law, investigation skills, firearm handling, physical training, un-armed combat, handling a crisis on the job, and getting up to scratch on amended laws.

"The police have to know their job well, be equipped with knowledge and we're trying to improve their education on every front to meet society's expectations."

Some look forward to this training, but others fight it, which he says is a mistaken attitude. Lately, he discovered that when it was their turn for physical exercises the rate of sick leave went up - some 100 police of 1,500 undergoing the training did not show up, possibly the same ones who pulled a sickie to avoid PE classes in school.

"I mean, we're not doing a marathon across Malta. The majority were all excuses so I decided to take action," he says.

Mr Rizzo issued instructions so those unable to do the exercises are transferred to the headquarters for alternative duties. He was criticised in a newspaper for taking such action and he laments that the media sometimes does not understand how the administration works or was solely interested in sensational reporting.

"If they're supposed to be training during working hours, shouldn't we stop abuse?" he asks.

Mr Rizzo mentions plans to replace the academy at St Elmo with more adequate premises in Ta' Kandja and is eager for the permit to be issued so work can start.

All this boosts morale, but what about officers' unpaid overtime? In October, just five days before he returned to work, 1,473 police officers filed a judicial protest against the commissioner for unpaid overtime dating back to 1993. Does this not have the opposite effect?

"This is a misunderstanding. When the protest was filed, I went to check if there was any overtime pending and there was none," he says.

He insists the issue is the result of different interpretations of an agreement drawn up in June 1993, which said: "payment of overtime at 1.5 times the rate of pay will be made for any hours worked in excess of 46 hours per week when time off in lieu cannot be given".

Mr Rizzo maintains this was always understood to refer to the normal shift of police who worked a normal five-day week and not for those who worked 24 hours on and 24 off, or those on a shift of day, night and rest.

He points out there were those who worked 96 hours, but this did not mean they were actively working, since they had passive time to sleep or do other work, not related to the force; they were on stand-by.

"Why take action now, not earlier in 1993, 1994, or 1995? Suddenly, they are trying to have a chance at possibly trying to swing some extra money. They were probably disheartened that the army had its salaries increased and they didn't," he says.

"I don't believe this is an issue of the corps being demoralised. Which worker does not try to fight for his rights?" he asks, jokingly adding he may contemplate signing the petition for all the hours he worked without compensation.

In a more serious tone, he adds that he has opened negotiations with the Malta Police Association, which is lobbying on the officers' behalf, to resolve the matter.

Mr Rizzo has hardly had a chance to catch his breath since returning to work and, apart from facing a pile of problems, as soon as he recovered he had to go to court as a witness in the case against the disgraced former chief justice Noel Arrigo. What does he think about the verdict?

"I don't think it is ethical on my part to comment in the light of his appeal," he says.

Criticism targeted at the force has also kept a steady rhythm and just last week, The Sunday Times columnist Michael Falzon wrote that police had a history of resisting changes.

Mr Falzon said it was hardly surprising the police were still resisting granting the right to legal counsel during interrogations when the law was amended some eight years ago.

So why is the police resisting this when several countries introduced rules to ensure statements of an accused obtained without the presence lawyer will not have any value as evidence? Does he feel the police's power will be weakened?

"I completely disagree with his accusations that we're conservative and hate change... It's not a matter of resisting but whenever you introduce something, it's important to have balance," he says.

He points out that the police investigate in the name of society and if somebody was robbed, the police investigate on his behalf.

"So if my power is weakened, it's society's power which will diminish. And that's if you choose to use the word power, because that's not how I describe it."

Mr Rizzo believes once this system is introduced the rate of solving crimes may go down.

"We have a number of criminals who do admit during interrogation, and I insist it's not through any coercion or pressure - no way, definitely not, such things don't exist in our investigations," he says.

"However, in the interview, police do their utmost, within the legal parameters, to ensure suspects cooperate. The rate of admissions will not remain the same with the presence of a lawyer, because if he sees the suspect is about to incriminate himself, he'll stop him from confessing and society suffers as a consequence."

Mr Rizzo makes it clear that contrary to what Mr Falzon said, he has never stopped politicians from enforcing this amendment.

Personally, he sees nothing wrong with introducing legal counsel during interrogations, but adds it is not just police who are concerned, but also established lawyers who spoke to him.

"I believe this has to be introduced someday soon and the time has come to prepare my people on the way they investigate. We have to start preparing for its introduction and even find other modern means to make up for the drop in the solving rate."

All this, coupled with numerous other pending issues, will be keeping Mr Rizzo busy for several months and it does not seem likely he will hang up his police uniform any time soon.

Watch excerpts of the interview on timesofmalta.com

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