That was a strange interview that Raphael Vassallo had with criminology academic Saviour Formosa last Sunday. In some respects, it recalled an interview with another expert discussing traffic congestion on TV some years ago. That expert had said something to the effect that traffic congestion was not real as much as it was a “perception”, a mistaken one blinding people who were only imagining there were more cars crawling between them and their destination. That “perception” dodge, a phrase that institutionalised gaslighting by attempting to divorce us from our very eyes, became legendary.

Well, Saviour Formosa assures us that if we think there’s more crime we are relying on our misguided impression, distracted perhaps by some brutal murder like that drug-addled monster who drove over a young woman apparently for sport. He went one further than the legendary transport expert. Not only is our perception of crime rates unrelated to reality, “perceptions of crime are inversely proportional to reality” which, in English means, the more crime you think there is, the less there actually is. Echoes of Squealer from Animal Farm.

Saviour Formosa admonishes us all for sticking with our common-sense perceptions rather than the statistics. “Now: the philosophy I myself subscribe to, as an academic, is that: if you want to make a statement, I will give you all the raw data you need; and you can work on that data, and then draw your own conclusions,” Saviour Formosa says.

But here’s the rub. I don’t really need to re-analyse the raw data. I’m happy working with Saviour Formosa’s analysis which would take me to the opposite conclusion as his.

These are direct quotes from Saviour Formosa’s interview:

“Meanwhile, another reason is the fact that the category we refer to as ‘petty crime’ – including pickpocketing, simple theft, damage to private property, etc. – is the one that has decreased, the most. And as these ‘commonplace’ crimes decrease, what’s left – namely, more serious crime, of the kind that has always been there – will become more prominent, as a result.”

Aha. Perhaps Saviour Formosa is right that we have an issue of perception here. The total number of individual reports of crime made to the police has gone down giving Saviour Formosa the utterly mistaken impression that crime itself has gone down. To begin with the reduced availability of police officers on the front line in local police stations or on the beat may have very well reduced the incidence of reporting as people give up trying to find a police officer to report a crime to. Consider the story of a murdered woman who had to go through the torture of hours of waiting at Police HQ for someone to make a note that their husband beat them, knowing no one would deal with the problem for some 24 months.

Even putting these experiential elements aside, numbers alone are unhelpful, giving purely a quantitative measure when a qualitative understanding is also necessary.

Is a county with ten episodes of pickpocketing and one major tax fraud conspiracy less plagued by crime than a country with one pickpocketing incident and 9 major tax fraud conspiracies? By Saviour Formosa’s measure Country A has a crime index of 11 and Country B has a crime index of 10 and he assures us we are wrong to perceive country B as less safe.

I call bullshit.

Here’s another one. Saviour Formosa notes that more crimes are being reported in Gozo, but he does not attribute that shift to an increased rate of crime but an increased propensity for people in Gozo to trust the police and report crimes they would have, in some past, dealt with themselves rather than involve the cops.

This he attributes to “a shift in omertà” though he seems unclear where omertà has gone to live now that it’s left the shores of Għajnsielem.

There seems to me to be a bit of argumentative convenience being played here. Saviour Formosa explains the cause of regional increases in crime rates as cultural improvements. ‘The Gozitans are not so secretive anymore,’ he seems to suggest without reference to much evidence. But then he attributes the cause of regional decreases in crime rates on the other island to how great and effective the police are at reducing crime and to push down the number of cases filed even as the population grows.

Is there perhaps some other sociological explanation that Saviour Formosa might consider investigating? If he is right that mistrust of the police has shifted away from Gozo, would he not consider that it has shifted to large immigrant populations that are beyond the cultural reach of our law enforcement agencies and who perceive the police as the uniformed people who might at any time beat them, shoot at them in the dark, or worse deport them?

Is this something he has investigated or has Saviour Formosa relied on the numbers logged at the front desk of police stations, such as any are left in business, without regard to the reality on the ground? Is he quite as blind as the police and if so, what use is there for his research?

Saviour Formosa again: “But let’s see where those perceptions are coming from: starting with the so-called ‘Exodus’ [of senior officers].” I perked up here. We have counted the police officers leaving and publicly mourned the loss of their experience and expertise. Was this also our misguided perception?

Yes, it appears. “When you look at the different departments within the Police Force, you will find that the areas which registered the highest number of departures, were mainly in the ‘high-end, financial crime’ department.”

Let us, for the sake of argument, accept that this is accurate, that the police are perfectly capable of retaining staff to police ‘low-end’, ‘commonplace’, and ‘petty’ crimes, to use Saviour Formosa’s sophisticated taxonomy. And let us also consider that he acknowledges that for one reason or another the police are not capable of retaining officers who can fight ‘high-end, financial crime’.

Well then, we have a problem with the data, don’t we? If there is any increase in ‘high-end’ crime, there’s no one measuring it because there’s no one policing it. If all the people who can detect financial crime have gone to work for banks, there’s no one in the force left to recognise a financial crime when it happens.

I don’t think omertà has shifted at all, not the omertà that matters. Saviour Formosa describes omertà as the practice of slicing the tyres of the car of someone who has scratched your car instead of filing a police report. This is a rather reductive definition. It is less forensic and more romantic. It is less law and more pulp novel.

Omertà is the business of using intimidation and coercion to force social consensus on the most transparent lie of them all, that there is no organised crime and that if we feel that the wielding of power by agents outside the state or agents who have infiltrated the state like a fungus in its brain is some sort of problem it is only because we are imagining it.

‘High-end, financial crimes’ matter. And the fact that the police are perfectly capable of catching Jean Valjean for stealing a can of tuna to feed his children is no comfort for the fact that the blessed crime rate does not include what Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona, and several of their associates have done.

Another academic, George Vital Zammit, said on a recent Repubblika broadcast that he also perceives a shift in omertà. He spoke of ‘institutional omertà’ when he described the distance the police chief Angelo Gafà keeps from the press, the secretiveness of his force’s operations, the complete absence of any effort to assure the public not just of the police’s ability to fight ‘low-end’, ‘commonplace’, and ‘petty’ crime but their ability to act as they should: as an arm of the state where the law is the same for everyone and no high-end sophistication will protect criminals from blind, effective justice.

Perhaps then we can agree that perception guides our judgement of the effectiveness of the Maltese state when fighting crime. But we cannot agree on the reasons for that perception. The reasons are not, as Saviour Formosa rather patronisingly suggests, imaginary. We do not imagine that law enforcement is unequal, discriminates against the poor and the foreign, and completely absolves white-collar criminals, particularly criminals who hold or have held public office.

Any academic reassurance that we need to stop worrying and learn to love the impunity of organised criminals would prove one point that Saviour Formosa makes though: omertà has indeed shifted.