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Soldiers doing police work -'unhealthy in a democracy'

Experts question plans for soldiers to be deployed in certain areas

Army personnel during a joint security operation on Monday. Photo: Jonathan Borg

Army personnel during a joint security operation on Monday. Photo: Jonathan Borg

Plans for soldiers to patrol the streets in criminal hotspots have raised concerns among experts and observers, who stressed the clear line in a democracy between the roles of the military and police forces.

Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia announced on Friday that armed forces personnel could be deployed in areas such as Marsa, Birżebbuġa, St Paul’s Bay and Paceville next year.

The measure comes amid longstanding safety concerns from residents in the areas and has been positioned by the government as an addition to efforts to curb illegal activity.

But Martin Scicluna, a former adviser under successive governments on police and security, said it was a “basic principle” in a democracy that the army should not be involved in day-to-day policing.

Soldiers are trained for a different role

“The army is there as a final backup to the police, but it should not be doing the job of the police,” he said. “Soldiers are trained for a different role and the police force in Malta is large enough to be able to look after an area like Marsa or Paceville.

“The solution is a redeployment of police resources from other quieter parts of Malta; it should never involve the army being in direct contact with members of the public.”

Several European countries – notably France, Italy and the UK – have put soldiers on the streets in recent years, either as a short-term reaction to an immediate threat or as an indefinite measure to heighten security.

But those cases all came in the context of serious terrorist threats and were themselves not without controversy.

In the UK, where troops were deployed extraordinarily after the Manchester bombings in May, there were even reports of the army initially resisting the idea. In France, where the deployment is longstanding, concerns have repeatedly been raised about soldiers being pulled away from their main duties of external security.

Here in Malta, the most notable army involvement in policing in recent years has been in the form of vehicle check points, which have been handed over to the police since 2010.

Deploying people who are not specifically trained in law enforcement could be inviting trouble

Speaking to the Sunday Times of Malta, one former high-ranking army officer drew a clear distinction between police and military functions, adding that while particular circumstances could call for the army’s involvement, this should generally be limited to a support and advisory role.

A police source, meanwhile, pointed to the words of British general Sir John Hacket, who said: “To employ soldiers as police, or police as soldiers… is grossly inefficient and contains a serious threat to freedom”.

When contacted, the Home Affairs Ministry appeared to play down the plans, describing them as a “possibility” and noting that armed forces personnel would only join patrols when requested by the police.

A ministry spokeswoman said the measure was intended to “reassure good order” and would be implemented alongside plans for more police officers on the ground, CCTV surveillance and a ban on drinking alcohol in the streets.

Human rights lawyer Neil Falzon, director of the Aditus Foundation, described the measure as a “show of force” and insisted that militarising areas with high crime rates would not address the issue.

“Army personnel are not trained in the same way as police; they have a different approach to civil obedience and disobedience. Deploying people who are not specifically trained in law enforcement could be inviting trouble,” he said.

Stressing that Western democracies typically deployed their armies only as an “emergency measure”, he suggested the focus should be instead on boosting police presence while addressing the root causes of higher crime rates.

Dr Falzon also highlighted the fact that the majority of hotspots identified by the minister were home to large migrant populations.

“Beefing up security only in these areas fuels the perceptions that migrants are troublemakers, which continues to feed into the criminalisation of migrants,” he said.

With the entertainment centre of Paceville also mentioned by the government, further concerns were raised by the business community.

Philip Fenech, president of the tourism and hospitality section of the Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises (GRTU), warned against heavy-handed measures that could send the wrong message.

“Police presence gives a sense of comfort but bringing out the army goes beyond that and may create a sense of danger,” he said.

Mr Fenech acknowledged that more security was needed in retail and entertainment areas with a “dynamic” mix of people and behaviour, but said the situation could be tackled by strengthening normal procedures like digital surveillance and police patrols.

“I think there should be more subtle ways of controlling possible criminal movements,” he said.

“I believe the army should get involved only when the situation is fully out of control, and right now that is not the case. There has to be monitoring and it has to be managed, but certainly not with army personnel on the streets. Malta hasn’t reached that point.”

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