Protecting our boys (and girls) in blue

When Police Constable Simon Schembri from the Police Traffic Section took to the witness stand earlier this week, his thoroughly descriptive testimony was shocking. It described in considerable detail what some of our boys (and girls) in blue are up against when carrying out their duties to protect us. Fortunately, such incidents are not that common.

The Police Corps, at all levels, is replete with dedicated men and women who – in the hour of need – stood up to be counted in defence of our society. Over the years, a number of members of the police corps were murdered while on duty: Simon Schembri was lucky in that, notwithstanding his extensive injuries, he did not join that list.

Maintaining public order has never been an easy task, as there are always those who consider the police force as an obstacle preventing them from acting according to their whims. “Leave me alone” (u ajma ħallini) were the words attributed to the apprehended under-age driver who then proceeded to drag Simon Schembri some 400 metres underneath his Mercedes. This is the result of much more than a lack of respect. People like him, unfortunately, do not simply contest authority, they hold it in contempt.

The Maltese people generally respect members of the police force because they appreciate their dedication to the community they serve and because they are always there to serve when needed.

For some time, the Police Union, as well as the Police Association, have been talking about the need for insurance cover as a protective cushion for police officers who are injured on duty and also for the families of those officers who actually lose their lives in the course of their work. There is no doubt that this should be implemented as a mater of urgency.

However, while it is important to mitigate the impact of injury or death on duty it would obviously be preferable if action was taken to prevent such incidents happening in the first place.  One way would be to assign more officers on the beat, preferably with no policeman or woman being left on his or her own. This would reinforce policing and would inevitably lead to a reduction in the number of incidents in which police officers are faced with a violent reaction when carrying out their duties.

Police officers should not be dependent on charity through public requests for donations after a specific incident to help those who have been injured or the families of those who have been murdered. Such assistance should be pre-planned and it should primarily be prevention-oriented through reinforcement of the police beats, better training and a greater allocation of resources. This would ensure that police officers can carry out their duties in a manner which better ensures their own protection.

During the testimony of Police Constable Simon Schembri earlier this week it was revealed that, out of his own pocket, Schembri had purchased a helmet to use on duty which was of superior quality to that provided by the Police Corps, as well as a uniform made of more resistant material than the one provided. No one has so far explained why the Police Corps does not provide items of the best quality for our boys and girls in blue. This is what public funds are for. It is clear that the condition of Constable Schembri would have been much worse, had he not had the foresight to invest in his own safety.

These are some of the matters which need to be addressed. Our police officers deserve the best uniforms and equipment available. This will ensure that while they are striving to produce while on the frontline in our fight against crime, they themselves are also protected.

The Police Force has been requesting more resources for some considerable time. Body cams have been on this list for ages and it is therefore positive to note that, last month, it was announced that a pilot project for the introduction of body cams for use by police officers on duty was to be shortly implemented. The pilot project is to commence in the traffic section and it is hoped it will eventually spread throughout the police force.

Most of the members of the Police Force are dedicated to their duties. It is a pity that, occasionally, a handful of them put the Force in a bad light as a result of the way they act or react.

Police officers have not always been treated properly by the authorities. We remember when their right to a service pension after 25 years’ service was removed, only for it to be reintroduced a few years later. The right of policeman or woman to join a Trade Union is a recent positive development, serving as it does the purpose of ensuring that their conditions of work are kept under the spotlight and subject to continuous improvement.

It is fine to express our solidarity with members of our Police Force when, as a result of carrying out their duties, they suffer injuries or – even worse – sacrifice their lives. But it would be much better if we all worked tirelessly to ensure that these consequences are avoided as much as possible.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 26 August 2018

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