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The fight against crime

He puts criminals behind bars, but Assistant Police Commissioner Pierre Calleja tells Kurt Sansone reality is different from the glamorous perception created by TV police series.

A number of high profile hold-ups last year raised alarm bells. Is Malta becoming unsafe?

There were two high profile armed robberies towards the end of the year that caused alarm but I do not believe the country is less safe. Statistics show the number of armed robberies last year was less than in 2009, which had also registered one of the lowest figures in years for armed robberies.

The numbers may have been down but those that happened were very spectacular such as the Casino di Venezia heist. Are criminals becoming less fearful?

The armed robberies you refer to were conducted by structured groups – defined by the Criminal Code as organised groups – unlike the majority that are committed by armed individuals who enter commercial outlets and whose behaviour is fuelled by a drug problem.

Could the fact that jewellers were advertising the price of gold have contributed to the situation?

It could be that the advertisements encouraged people with bad intentions to commit criminal acts; however, this phenomenon was not linked solely to armed robberies but also theft.

How do you rate the police force’s success rate in the fight against crime?

Success can be assessed on two counts: how effective we are in our proactive role and how successful we are in the reactive role to solve crimes. The Criminal Investigation Department plays a reactive role but under my wing I also have the mobile squad, which plays a role in preventing crime by acting as a deterrent.

Armed robberies are very difficult to solve and it is better to create a deterrent that prevents them from happening. We had a 30 per cent success rate in solving these types of crime...

Isn’t this low?

It is not a low rate. These are difficult crimes to solve and our success rate compares well with that of other countries. But there is also the proactive work we conduct and it is difficult to gauge how successful this is because we can never know how many crimes we prevented.

The perception people have of criminal investigations is influenced by what they see on TV in crime series. How true to reality is this perception?

Reality is completely different from what we see on TV. I wish it were the same because solving crimes is made very easy and all films have a happy ending with criminals being caught and prosecuted. Reality is different. Today’s criminals are more professional and they have also learnt from the bigger exposure given to police investigative methods on TV.

Having said that, the police have changed their strategy when investigating crime and whereas before we used to bank a lot on a confession, today we rely more on other methods such as the collection of forensic evidence.

Do you view the public as a partner in the fight against crime?

We would like people to participate more. Crime is everybody’s problem not just the police’s. We have to keep in mind the size of our country and the fact that almost everybody knows everybody. This creates fear in people, who are sometimes reluctant to give evidence in court.

I have been at the CID for almost 20 years and I have seen many cases where the police know who committed the crime but do not have the necessary proof to be able to prosecute. In some of these cases we know there were witnesses but they refused to speak.

However, I also wish people to participate by reporting any suspicious activity even if it turns out to be nothing. At least we would have checked it out and this also helps us in the fight against crime.

Last week the police held a news conference over a Russian woman’s murder in which you informed the media of developments. However, there were no such briefing sessions in other high profile cases such as the Transport Malta bomb and when you were searching for fugitive Fabio Psaila where media exposure could have prompted people to come forward with information. Doesn’t the police force help itself when it encourages people to help?

It is my personal opinion that there is room for improvement in the relations between the police and the media as a vehicle to reach the public. We can use the media better to obtain more information. I agree with the holding of news conferences on high profile crimes.

Is this reluctance to be open with the media and the public ingrained in police culture?

It is not just police culture because we operate in society. When I worked at Scotland Yard I could see the difference in the relationship between the police and the media. One day I would like to see the police force’s relationship with the media being based on the British model.

At what stage is the investigation into the Transport Malta bomb?

A criminal act like that involving a bomb is very difficult to solve because explosives destroy a lot of evidence. Every crime involving explosives that we have had throughout the years has always been difficult to solve. But I assure people that this department in particular is actively working on the case to find the perpetrator and bring the person to justice.

How has the profile of criminals changed over the years?

It has changed because criminals have learnt how we work and are becoming more cautious. Even the types of crime have changed. Fraud is increasingly committed today as opposed to the past. Theft has not changed but a lot of it today is committed by individuals who have a drug problem.

There was uproar last year when Darren Debono it-Topo was arraigned in connection with the Attard hold-up after he was out on bail for a similar hold-up he was accused of. Are you satisfied with court decisions?

It is not a question of whether I am satisfied or not because we have to start by looking at what the law states. Without entering into the merits of any particular case, a person has a right to be given bail because he is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The Criminal Code provides different criteria on which magistrates base their decision on whether to grant bail. Analysing the relevant articles at law should lead the decision-maker to be careful when dealing with people who have a criminal past. However, the decision is always subject to the magistrate’s discretion.

How sensitive are magistrates when deciding on bail for repeat offenders?

I do not want to be drawn into passing judgment on the judiciary.

Am I correct to say the police are sometimes frustrated by certain judgments?

There have been instances when I was personally frustrated by certain decisions to grant bail to people who have a long history of crime. But it is not just the police who are frustrated.

Are the police at a disadvantage in court when faced with top criminal lawyers on the other side of the bench?

To be a good investigating officer you have to have a good understanding of criminal law. The three pillars of criminal law that a police officer has to know are theft, homicide and rape. This, coupled with good knowledge of criminal procedures in court mean that a police officer is possibly better placed to prosecute a person.

I see this as an advantage over a system such as the British model which sees the police referring cases to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The UK had a system that was similar to ours and when they adopted the CPS they saw a number of cases being thrown out of the window because the lawyers believed there was not enough evidence to go ahead with prosecution.

A police officer knows the case inside out and so could be in a better position than any lawyer, whether an average or a top one. However, it also requires being able to argue the case well in court.

Not everyone is capable of arguing a case in court.

Yes, but that applies also to some criminal lawyers.

I’m sure the top criminal lawyers do not have this problem.

No they don’t.

Do you agree with the police having a specialised prosecution unit?

I would agree for other reasons than those you have brought up. A prosecution unit would help reduce the burden on investigative inspectors, who would be able to dedicate more time to their police work rather than being caught up in court on multiple cases.

There have been various claims over the past few years of abuse at the depot during police interrogations. Why aren’t interrogations recorded?

Such a system would safeguard the police more than the suspect. These contestations normally revolve around statements where the person confesses to the crime...

But there were others who claimed they were made to confess under duress.

That is what they are saying. I start by looking at what the law states; a confession has to be given voluntarily and the person cannot be threatened or promised any advantages. If a confession is obtained in this way it is legal.

Apart from this there is also a code of practice outlined in the Police Act, which outlines how interviews should be conducted.

I am personally in favour of having interviews video record­ed. However, in the UK this was only introduced last year and is limited to certain cases involving disabled people.

All interviews in the UK are audio recorded. We do have audio recording of interviews in some of the more serious cases, and from experience they are more effective than a written statement.

The current police commissioner (then assistant commissioner) and I were the first to introduce audio recording. The first case was the killing of police constable Roger Debattista. The audio recording was used in court and it had an impact on the outcome of the case.

The problem with audio recording is that it requires a lot of human resources and time to transcribe the interviews. We have to evaluate all aspects of any system but I have to point out that apart from England and Wales, the majority of EU countries only have audio recording of interviews. Some are experimenting with video recording but it depends on what equipment will be used and whether it conforms to legal requirements.

Does video recording require a change in legislation?

No, I don’t think so but it depends on what system is adopted. Our audio recording system has three tapes working simultaneously. One is given to the suspect, one is kept for police records and another is used in court if it is necessary.

If we go for video recording – and I believe this is an advantage because the judge can also see the body language – we have to find an adequate system.

Last year, the government introduced the right for a suspect to consult his lawyer for an hour before being interrogated. Would the police object if this were to be enhanced by having the lawyer present during the interrogation?

The proviso giving suspects the right to consult a lawyer was introduced a year ago. We have to analyse what happened throughout this year before proceeding to change the legal provisions. Apart from the UK, where the lawyer can be present with a limited role, no other country in continental Europe has a system that allows lawyers to be present during interrogations.

How has the system worked?

Only 26 per cent of those arrested on suspicion of committing a criminal act opted to consult their lawyer over the period the legal provision has been in force.

Are suspects informed of their right though?

It is an obligation on our part to inform suspects of their rights. From the moment a person is arrested he has to be informed of his rights.

Is this done?

Yes. The moment I put a single question it means the interrogation has started. So as a police officer I have to immediately inform the person of his right not to answer and the right to consult a lawyer for an hour.

Criminal lawyers have suggested that police behaviour in relation to strip searches at the depot is akin to abuse and intimidation. How do you respond to these concerns?

Police behaviour is always questioned no matter what you do.

Isn’t this the way it should be?

When I was in the UK they used to tell us that if we win we are damned and if we lose we are damned. Your questions on this matter over the past few weeks have been answered and I cannot give a different answer.

But why is the police force refusing to publish the guidelines regulating strip searches?

The police force has internal guidelines regulating strip searches. Under Chapter 164 of the Laws of Malta there is a code of practice annexed which outlines how interrogations should be conducted.

The code is public because it is annexed to the law. On strip searches there are internal discussions going on and I would like to see a code of practice annexed to the law.

How can a person know his rights have been infringed if the guidelines are not public?

It was not me who said the guidelines will not be made public.

It was the police force in an official reply who said so.

I am telling you what I would like to see. Having a code of practice annexed to the law would clarify matters and dispel doubts because it would be public.

Is this what you are aiming for?

This is what I personally wish for and as an assistant commissioner I will recommend this course of action. But I have to point out that the UK’s Police Complaints Commission has recommended wider police powers on strip searches because there have been cases of people who were taken into custody, who ended up hurting themselves with blades they hid on their person.

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