You could say we waited a long time before we said out loud that Angelo Gafà needed to resign as police chief. I think that would be fair criticism.
When months and months went by and still no action was taken against people exposed by scandals from years before; when nothing happened for months after magisterial inquiries wrapped up; when evidence given by police officers in some high profile cases appeared to be defeating itself by design; when information emerged of an internal struggle to scupper the search in Joseph Muscat’s home under orders from a magistrate; when charges were issued to a bank and a middle manager but the owner who profited from its money laundering operation was allowed to walk scott free; when people wanted by other police services were allowed to travel with Joseph Muscat; when all that happened, we would have been justified every time to call for Angelo Gafà’s resignation.
I guess you could say we are guilty of not having the gift of foresight. When Angelo Gafà was hired he was the first police chief to go through a selection process relatively independently of the prime minister. That gave us hope. On his behalf, though obviously not at his behest, we complained he had to undergo a year of probation where his position would be insecure. We thought he might do well to be cautious during that year and get ready to pounce on the corrupt and the criminal right after.
We watched him answer questions to a committee in Parliament. He talked the big talk, said he wasn’t scared of politicians and not impressed by big names. He sounded like just what the country needed, someone who would chew bullets fired from the pezzonovante that held sway here until the end.
We knew he had been the man, back when he was a lowly inspector, to recommend charges against John Dalli who at the time, 2012, was as big a shot as they came. We couldn’t help but be impressed.
Then in March 2021 there was a flash of brilliance when Keith Schembri was charged and held in the brig for 2 weeks. True this had naught to do with government corruption, but it was still Keith Schembri. It was still a big, big shot. It looked like Angelo Gafà would live up to his promise.
We didn’t have the gift of foresight and we have other imperfections. We are unforgivable optimists. We never give up on our country and its people. However dark things get, however awful the conduct of some officials turns out to be, we continue to feel disappointment, which means that we continue to have faith in people, in officials, in regulators, in people in positions of influence or power.
We keep hoping things are on the way up and we look for signs of improvement, the sprouting of green shoots among the ashes, the drip dripping of water on the choking drought. And we get mirages. Angelo Gafà was such a mirage. We kept finding signs of improvement where there were none. We kept waiting for the other shoe to drop when there had been no shoe.
To be fair it is police officers themselves, the ones so close to the scene they could smell it, that shook us out of our utterly unjustified optimism. We never liked Lawrence Cutajar. Our reasons for not liking him are documented carefully and accurately by the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry. At first, we could not understand why police officers were telling us we should like Angelo Gafà even less.
We pushed back on that. Angelo Gafà was not embarrassing like his predecessor. We all remembered talking with visiting delegations from the Council of Europe, the Italian Anti-Mafia Parliamentary Commission, the European Parliament, after they had just walked out of meetings with Lawrence Cutajar with tears in their eyes. They would say they had emerged from a cuckoo’s nest they wished they had flown over. Lawrence Cutajar clearly had no idea what they were talking about when they used big words like ‘money laundering’, or ‘organised crime’, or even ‘mafia’ and ‘corruption’. He needed things explained to him through painting by numbers.
Angelo Gafà, in and of himself and in sharp contrast with his predecessor, was so impressive he sounded like Judge Dredd. He more than knew his stuff. He looked the part. If you were casting a gritty procedural, you’d give the job to Angelo Gafà the actor any day. You’d cast Lawrence Cutajar as the halfwit with the heart of gold.
That’s what police officers needed us to see. Whatever soul, whatever sense of mission, whatever collective spirit the police force still had in the hellish downward spiral of successive police chiefs that followed John Rizzo in the job, persisting right up to the embarrassingly ineffective days of Lawrence Cutajar, was set on fire by Angelo Gafà.
I think it’s worth restating some things, however obvious they should be. We can’t fix what’s wrong with this country unless the police department gets its act together. There’s no one that can do the job for them. There’s no way we can restore a sense that the law rules and that everyone is equal before the law unless they get to do their job.
So, think of all the things that have changed, maybe, or so it is claimed, for the better. Our laws have been improved (some might say). The judiciary is more independent because the prime minister no longer gets to choose who’s hired to work there and who’s promoted. The Commissioner for Standards, the Ombudsman, and the Auditor General have done a gutsy job. The chief prosecutor no longer doubles as the government’s inhouse counsel.
All that counts to absolutely nothing unless police officers detect crime, put handcuffs on the crooks, and give high quality evidence when called to do so in a court of law.
Whether it is because he doesn’t want to for similarly corrupt reasons that inhibited his predecessors, or whether it is because he is a terrible manager of people and he has only succeeded in alienating all but a handful of lackeys, or whether it is because he’s better at talking himself up than to actually deliver, the fact is two years is plenty of time to reach the rather disheartening conclusion that Angelo Gafà cannot and will not lead his department to anything like a successful delivery of the function it has in our democracy.
Something else might have forced us to wait two years before we called for his resignation. Again, because we’re not perfect we bought into the idea that however short of reasonable expectations for the position he occupies Angelo Gafà turned out to be, it would be impossible to replace him with anyone better.
But you know, we’ve had police chiefs before. None of them were perfect. Even the better ones are often remembered for their errors, of judgement, of policework, of strategy, of relations with the world outside their headquarters. But there has never been a time when this country has felt so let down by the police. We despair of it.
We try not to say it aloud because acknowledging such a vulnerability is very painful. Even if you consider international investment alone, the selling proposition of a safe country where law-abiding people and businesses are effectively protected from the lawbreakers is now all but lost. It’s worse for us who must live here because it’s the only home we know.
It is an undoubted tragedy that we must admit we remember times when the police were better than now. That sort of thing should always be getting better, never worse. That’s why it was so shocking to hear of what Lawrence Cutajar, Silvio Valletta, and Ian Abdilla had done. That’s why we were so quick to hope and to believe we had turned the page, and anyone could be better than that.
Since I said we’re unforgivable optimists you won’t need to forgive us for this. We still think it’s true. Someone out there is ready to take on this job. Someone out there is more than capable to do so.
Even knowing that, we can’t make the same mistakes we made on the eve of Daphne’s killing. We can’t allow our mindless optimism about our country, our nostalgia for our near past when we had good reason to believe our country had become reliably democratic and safe, our ability to gloss over the ugliness with the bright glare of the delightful sunshine on our shimmering sea, blind us to the reality we live in.
The Daphne inquiry told us a lot of bad can happen when the top police officers are not up to their job or serve first their political (and criminal) masters before they serve the country, its people, and their constitution. The Daphne inquiry told us a journalist was killed as a result.
Although this may sound callous, try now to think of the killing of a journalist as a symptom rather than as the worst possible consequence of a dysfunctional police force. Try to stop thinking of the killing of a journalist as only metaphorically representing the killing of our freedom. If we can’t rely on our police to protect us from criminals because they are captured by criminals or in their thrall, we can’t rely on the police to protect our freedom. And if they’re not doing that, who will?
Though we don’t know it, or more likely though we’d rather not think about it, we’re all threatened by this.
It’s fair to criticise us for taking two years to ask Angelo Gafà to resign. But here we are. We’ve got to start fixing this country somewhere. Get someone in there that’s willing to try.