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Malta Police Force set up 200 years ago

Sir Richard O’Ferrall. Right: Sir Thomas Maitland.

Sir Richard O’Ferrall. Right: Sir Thomas Maitland.

The earliest records of policing in Malta date back to the Arab rule (AD870- 1091) when the sahib el-xurta was responsible for maintaining public order. During the Aragonese period, in 1283, this work was strengthened with the establishment of the office of the Head of Justice or the Capitano di Verga, who became responsible for criminal and civil offences.

The Gran Visconte.The Gran Visconte.

In 1530, Malta was enfeoffed to the Order of St John and policing fell under the control of the Gran Visconte. The criminal law was written down in the Code de Rohan, promulgated in 1784, and amended by subsequent notices known as bandi. When the French seized the island in 1798, the military and a civil commission of government became responsible for the maintenance of law and order.

On September 5, 1800, the besieged French forces surrendered to Major-General Henry Pigot, the commander of the British troops, and on May 14, 1801, Charles Cameron was appointed the first civil commissioner for Malta. Between 1801 and 1814, the first period of British rule, the administration of justice and police continued to be exercised, as circumstances permitted, in conformity with the laws and institutions of the Order of St John. However, the various executive forces, namely the Castellano, the Capitano di Verga, the Criminal Judge, the Magistrate of Police, the Advocate Fiscal, and the Governor of Gozo, as well as the police established in August 1812, acted on no uniform or settled plan.

When Malta became a colony of the United Kingdom and Ireland by the Treaty of Paris, Thomas Maitland was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of Malta and its Dependencies by the Prince Regent’s Commission of July 13, 1813. On his appointment, Maitland, whose autocratic rule earned him the name of King Tom, embarked on many far-reaching reforms, including the maintenance of law and order.

By Proclamation XXII of July 1, 1814, Maitland ordered and directed that all the powers up to then exercised with respect to the administration of the police of the island of Malta and its dependencies were, after July 12, 1814, to be administered by the authorities under established procedures.

Tancred Curmi. Right: The first police commandant Francesco Rivarola.Tancred Curmi. Right: The first police commandant Francesco Rivarola.

The police force was to be divided into two distinct departments – the executive police and the judicial. The inspector general of police (today known as the commissioner) was to be the head of the executive police. The magistrates for Malta and the magistrates of police for Gozo were to be the heads of the judicial police. The establishing of two separate departments was aimed to separate completely the executive, the legislative, and the judicial authorities from one another.

The first police cap badge.The first police cap badge.

According to the proclamation, the duties of the executive police were to be the same as those exercised by the previous executive force. The proclamation also gave powers to the police to arrest a person committing any offence whatsoever against the public peace or welfare or the police regulations. However, any such person had to be brought forthwith before the magistrate of the executive police for examination and in no case were they to be detained by the police for longer than two days.

The first members of the police force did not wear any uniform and were identified because they carried a dangling sword, a pistol, and a baton as a sign of their office. Members of the police below the rank of adjutant became known as serjeants (sergeants). The minimum height to enlist in the force was five feet, five inches (1.65 metres).

After July 12, 1814, the entire management and control of the executive police came under the immediate superintendence of the inspector general of police, who received his orders from the governor. The inspector general was given power and authority to suppress all common affrays, riots and breaches of the peace and to apprehend and imprison, or cause to be apprehended and imprisoned, any person guilty of these offences, or guilty or suspected to be guilty of any crime or offence against the public welfare. However, since 1814, all torture of every description was prohibited and abolished.

The first police commandant was Francesco Rivarola, a native of Corsica who joined the Corsican Regiment of the British Army as an ensign on March 18, 1795, when Corsica was occupied by British forces.

In May 1813, when the plague broke out in Malta, Rivarola became inspector general of a police force whose task it was to prevent the spread of the disease and to take remedial measures to combat the plague. In July 1814, he was confirmed in this appointment with the establishment of the Malta Police Force.

With effect from November 15, 1822, the office of inspector general of police was abolished and Lieutenant Colonel H. Balneavis was appointed Deputy Inspector General of Police. Then on February 1, 1932, the Secretary of State ordered that the police department be placed under the charge of a civil officer, and thus nominated Charles Godfrey as Magistrate of the Executive Police with the same powers as exercised by the previous commandant; hence the post of Deputy Inspector General of Police was abolished.

From the early years of British rule up to 1919, the police force was invariably the Cinderella of all government departments

From the early years of British rule up to 1919, the police force was invariably the Cinderella of all government departments. However, from time to time, the need for reform became so pressing that it could not be ignored. As early as 1836, the Secretary of State gave an impetus to the first reorganisation by appointing a commission sent to inquire, among other things, on how to improve the efficiency of the police. The commission, composed of John Austin and Sir G. Cornwall Lewis, submitted its findings and recommendations on January 10, 1838.

According to the Austin-Lewis report, in 1838 the police department was composed of a Magistrate of Executive Police, who had the chief superintendence, an assistant, six clerks, six adjutants and deputy adjutants, two sergeants major, 37 sergeants and 34 constables.

The report also made reference to the police duties performed by members of the Royal Malta Fencible Regiment. It was reported that 10 guards assisted the police in the capital city while soldiers were made to escort convicts employed in the cleaning of the streets and in other public work. Soldiers were also deployed as sentries in the towers round the coast to prevent smuggling.

As a result of the recommendations made in the Austin-Lewis report, by 1842 the strength of the police force consisted of one police command, an inspector for Gozo, 10 adjutants, two sub-adjutants, 33 sergeants and 159 constables. By that time there were already 45 police stations. The yearly salary of the head of police was £450, while the lowest rank received only £20 yearly.

In 1849, Sir Richard More O’Ferrall, the new Governor of Malta, proposed a reorganisation of the police force on the lines of the British police. In a report prepared to the Secretary of the Colonies, the Governor suggested a decrease in the number of officers and an increase in those of the lower ranks. The Governor also recommended that there should be more opportunities for advancements from the lower ranks in order to serve as an incentive for future recruits, as only illiterate candidates were applying to join the force.

The British authorities took notice of O’Ferrall’s suggestions and with effect from January 1, 1850, the police force was to be constituted of one commandant, one adjutant, four inspectors, four sub-inspectors, seven first-class sergeants, 13 second-class sergeants, 27 first-class constables, 88 second-class constables and 69 third-class constables.

Enlistment had to be made at the lower rank and promotions from this rank could rise to the rank of adjutant. Promotions were made according to merit from among members who could read and write Italian.

In 1885, another effort was made to organise the police force and the first Police Ordinance was enacted – Ordinance IX of 1885. Through this law, the head of government was empowered to appoint the commandant, who became known as the superintendent, and the other officers of the force. Moreover, the head of government could make regulations for the management of the several people appointed under this new ordinance, as well as respecting the places of their residence, their classifications, ranks, particular services, distribution and inspection, and the description of their arms.

The 1885 ordinance also mentioned the qualifications needed for enlistment in the force. With the exception of discharged soldiers, the maximum age was set at 25 for constables and 40 for inspectors. Moreover, people appointed to the police had to take two oaths – one of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen and her successors while the other oath bound every member to swear to discharge his duties to the best of his skill, knowledge, and according to law.

The first police branch was the mounted section, which dates back to 1860. Prior to the establishment of the section, the police had made use of horses when the first Black Maria was acquired for the transportation of prisoners from the law courts and prison and vice-versa. The first mounted section consisted of six horses and the stables were in the governor’s palace, with an entrance from Archbishop Street.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the police force was in a disorderly state and this may be proved from the report of a commission of enquiry which was chaired by the lieutenant governor. The commission heard the sworn evidence of Tancred Curmi, the senior assistant superintendent, and Captain S. Stivala, senior assistant superintendent of the marine police.

In his evidence given on January 15, 1903, Curmi referred to the time when the police districts were autonomous and there was no uniformity in the investigation of crime as well as in the conducting of court proceedings. He also mentioned cases of bomb outrages at Rabat committed by a police informant, practically under the protection of the police. Curmi attributed this negligence to a mistake on the part of some of his superior officers who did not work hand-in-hand with the subordinate ranks.

Some months later, this man was arrested and eventually sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for these bomb outrages which were the result of a dispute between the parish of Rabat and the cathedral of Mdina.

The report of this inquiry was submitted to the Secretary of State on June 27,1904. The commission requested an increase in the police establishment and in police pay which, it maintained, was insufficient to induce men of good class, or of any class, to join the force. But the reply from London was that no considerable increase in the strength of the force should be made until the reorganisation had been tested. It was further noted that to approve these proposals the colonial government would have to introduce further taxation.

The commission requested an increase in police pay which, it maintained, was insufficient to induce men of good class, or of any class, to join the force

In reply, the Governor explained that if the commission’s proposals were approved, the government could meet the increased expenditure without having recourse to further taxation. So the recommendations were approved by the Secretary of State on January 16, 1905, but the following year the financial condition of the government worsened and the rise in police pay was shelved.

Meanwhile, Curmi was appointed chief of police with effect from May 6, 1903 after the retirement of Clement La Primaudaye. Curmi was actually the first head of police appointed from among the senior police officers, having joined the force as a temporary assistant superintendent in November 1890.

After 12 years as chief of police, Curmi was suspended from his duties and charged with failing to institute court proceedings against a woman who had committed adultery. Curmi was also charged with submitting a false report to the Governor regarding a British officer who had taken a bouquet of flowers from a flower seller in Valletta without paying for it.

Charges were also filed against the chief of police regarding the enlistment of certain men in the force and for failing to report to the Governor that a lodging house was being conducted in a manner contrary to law and morality since it was being used for prostitution. The house in question consisted of a few furnished rooms generally occupied by female artistes employed in music halls.

During the inquiry, Curmi read a memorial compiled by his lawyer, Arturo Mercieca, as it was established that the defence counsel could not plead or be heard. Governor Leslie Rundle’s final decision was for Curmi to be dismissed from office with a reduced pension with effect from July 4, 1916.

To be concluded.

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