26 Apr Anonymity – a Tool or Hindrance to Crime Prevention?
By Stefania Farrugia, VSM Intern
Under Maltese law, the police cannot act on the basis of any anonymous reports or information furnished. This does not relate, however, to cases which they deem to be of a very serious ‘flagrant’ or permanent nature. This last instance is an exception to the rule and, more often than not, the informer is asked for his or her personal information alongside all details of the case that they are aware of. Information may be passed on to the police verbally or in written form. However, if it is conveyed to the police verbally, it must be reproduced in writing, with the informer signing a written statement.
Such identification is generally required when the act in question is of a serious nature, as well as to assist in potential follow-up proceedings. The identification of people reporting criminal behaviour can help verify such reports and enhances, to an extent, the reliability of the information submitted to law enforcement officers. At the same time, due to lack of resources and funds, criminal justice officials are often compelled to prioritise more serious investigations over less pressing reports. This has led them to recognise that the prevention of criminal activity cannot be achieved solely by the police, and that the input of the general public is necessary. The public is encouraged to act as the eyes and ears of the police force, reporting suspicious/criminal behavior, and actively participating in crime prevention.
Therefore, a balance needs to be struck between the need to take citizens’ reports into account and the police’s obligation to ascertain that tips and information are not being supplied with any motive other than to report the truth.
Yet, does the identification of informers aid the process towards justice? Could there be instances where lack of anonymity may dissuade persons from reporting criminal behaviour or any suspicious activities? Although the identification of the informer can aid in verifying the credibility of sources, asking informants to identify themselves may subject them to retaliation or intimidation and, thus, deter them from coming forward in the first place.
Indeed, certain jurisdictions clearly identify anonymity as an essential tool in crime prevention with some countries adopting a ‘blind submission process’, where informants submit information anonymously and are able to review photos of suspects and wanted persons lists in different areas. Although informants can disclose their identity if they wish to, there are instances where they are discouraged from doing so. In some cases, personal details are disclosed, but not recorded, or kept on the premise of utmost confidentiality. Some jurisdictions also protect anonymity by means of specialised legislation, wherein informants may not be subpoenaed, and breaches of the informer’s confidentiality incur criminal penalty.
Such measures allow for alternate methods of policing and crime prevention. People can report anonymously, whether online, or via ‘tip-lines’ means; they are allocated a number, and are guaranteed full anonymity. Some American states go so far as to avoid recording phone calls for the sake of anonymity – informants are put in touch with operators who log their information and pass it on to the police, when required. Such information is guaranteed to remain anonymous.
Certain countries and states strive to combat under-reporting and incentivise cooperation with the police by awarding compensation for tips submitted by the public. These may be retrieved from a specified local bank through the use of specific logon details.
The idea underlying this approach is of encouraging active citizenship. When local residents feel comfortable reporting suspicious individuals or activity, they are likely to do so more regularly. When perpetrators or potential perpetrators are aware that locals are on their guard, they may desist, or be deterred from committing crime. In turn, when private citizens come together and take action to protect their locality, the powerlessness and defencelessness caused by crime diminishes, and a sense of community comes into being.
For this reason, the setting up of Neighbourhood Watch schemes is also commended. Neighbourhood Watch schemes aim to empower local residents to take pride in their neighbourhood, take responsibility for what happens in their community and keep the community safe. Neighbourhood Watch Schemes do not only involve residents, but also local councils, the local police and other voluntary organisations.
Systems of anonymous reporting can help strengthen Neighbourhood Watch schemes, particularly in communities where social capital is scarce and fear of reprisal is widespread. Such platforms may allow for increased reporting, strengthen the public faith and trust in law enforcement officers and judicial systems to protect their rights, while enabling the police to carry out their job with the cooperation of the public.
 Chapter 9 of the Laws of Malta, Criminal Code, article 535.
 Criminal Code, article 536.
 Criminal Code, article 537.
About the author: Stefania Farrugia is a lawyer and is currently interning at Victim Support Malta as a Legal Intern, after recently graduating from the University of Malta. She has an avid interest in the area of human rights and completed her dissertation entitled the Protection of Employment Rights of Third Country Nationals in Malta, in 2016.
Project WO is funded by the Social Impact Awards
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Victim Support Malta.