What American Cops Could Learn from Italy’s Quasi-Military Police Force

Italy rarely comes to mind as a source of innovative ideas (well, notwithstanding the Renaissance and all). But given the country’s rancorous politics, increasing sociopolitical polarization, and a bloody history of both political and criminal violence, it may have something to teach our similarly-situated country about how to manage security, public safety, and government integrity in the midst of difficult circumstances.

As Elisabeth Braw at Foreign Policy argues, the country’s unique Arma dei Carabinieri (“Arm of Carabineers”), known simply as the Carabinieri has a lot of relevant lessons to offer American cops.

Italy’s Carabinieri are a police force with a military statute, operating jointly under Italy’s Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior. They carry arms and conduct the country’s most dangerous investigations—like arresting Mafia bosses and investigating terrorists. But they also deliver food and necessities to the elderly.

The Carabinieri are highly trained officers—and masters of de-escalation. As law enforcement officers respond to protests against police brutality across the United States with further violence, U.S. police forces could learn from Italy’s skilled force.

“A military Corps known for its good conduct and wisdom, called the Royal Carabinieri Corps … [is incepted] for the purpose of contributing to the overall prosperity of the State, that can’t be separated from the protection and defense of our good and loyal Subjects, and from the punishment of the guilty,” wrote King Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia in the royal decree that established the Carabinieri 206 years ago. On festive occasions, the Carabinieri still wear their distinctly regal-looking uniforms—and that’s how most foreigners picture the force.

But on most days, Carabinieri are far from pomp and circumstance. They investigate Mafia groups and other organized crime, arrest hardened criminals, seize illicit drugs, conduct peacekeeping in complex environments (such as Kosovo), and train other countries’ police forces in the use of firearms. They are, in other words, the real deal: highly skilled officers who take on the toughest cases.

Tough cases indeed. Just three years ago the Carabinieri arrested an influential mob boss; helped arrest nearly 100 people involved in a mafia-led scam to pillage government funds; arrested more than 300 members of the vicious and powerful ‘Ndrangheta; and seized six million euros ($6.5 million) and a large weapons cache (including a bomb with a working fuse) from a drug-trafficking syndicate.

In short, these men and women are no slouches when it comes to their broad range of potentially deadly duties. Yet despite the incredible risks of their work, and their technically military nature, they are actually less militarized than even American police.

As highly trained as they are, it’s rare to see a Carabinieri officer brandishing a gun.

 “Even during arrests of Mafia leaders, the officers only rarely use their weapons,” said Brig. Gen. Massimo Mennitti, the Carabinieri’s chief of external relations. “We simply make clear to them that they have no option but to give up.” But how to communicate that to an extremely dangerous mafioso without, say, pointing a weapon at him? “As they say in Sicily, ‘If you act with respect, you receive respect,’” Mennitti explained. “That’s obviously easy to say. It’s harder when you’re arresting somebody in a dark street. But your first instinct should be to remain calm.” It doesn’t always work.

In one incident in 1992, three Carabinieri lost their lives in the bombing attack on prosecutor Giovanni Falcone when a bomb was detonated as they traveled on a Sicilian motorway. Last year, three Carabinieri officers were killed on duty, among them Mario Cerciello Rega, an unarmed officer stabbed to death by an American teenager when he intercepted the U.S. national, who had stolen a backpack during a botched drug deal. Another 2,033 officers were injured last year, according to figures provided by the Carabinieri. Still, considering the often highly dangerous nature of the 110,000-strong force’s duties, that’s a relatively small number. Indeed, while the number of officers injured has increased in recent years, the number of deaths has declined.

Facing down mobsters, drug traffickers, and terrorists while rarely using guns or suffering casualties is an impressive balancing act, to say the least. This no doubt explains why the Carabinieri are so well regarded in Italian society, even when most of the government earns little public trust and confidence.

This wasn’t always so. Not unlike the U.S., Italy faced its share of domestic unrest and violence some decades, which could have very well led to a more aggressive and heavy-handed police response—especially given the Carabinieri’s militarized functions and culture.

 “In the 1970s we had a combination of [domestic] terrorism and widespread student protests,” recalled Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO and advisor to ex-President Giorgio Napolitano. “That’s where the Carabinieri learned their skills in crowd control. The situation was often violent, but the Carabinieri responded with extreme caution.”

That period, often referred to as the Years of Lead, came at a staggering human cost, with more than 400 people killed, according to most estimates. The majority were civilians, but civil servants were killed too, as were military officers and more than a dozen Carabinieri. But if they had employed more confrontational U.S.-style policing tactics back then, it’s likely many more lives would have been lost.

By contrast, U.S. law enforcement agencies—which are obviously not military forces, let alone trained as such—have bought $7.2 billion worth of heavily discounted military surplus equipment since 1997. From 2006 to 2014 America’s 15,000 or so police agencies bought 79,000 assault rifles, 200 grenade launchers, and 20,000 bayonets from the Department of Defense. Braw cites a 2017 study that found that the acquisition of these weapons more than doubled the rate of civilian death. (The result rests on a psychological phenomenon known as the Law of the Instrument, in which “certain tools increase the likelihood that they will be used when other tools are more appropriate”, i.e. “when you hold a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.)

The Carabinieri’s unique approach—military responsibilities and structure, advanced weaponry and training, yet largely nonviolent operations—is remarkable enough as it is. But despite its prestige and armed capabilities, this centuries-old force is not above doing the humble but necessary work of community police.

During the coronavirus crisis, Carabinieri have been bringing food to older people, homeless people, and others who are struggling. In some towns, they have even teamed up with local priests to buy food for needy families. And because locked-down elderly Italians have been unable to collect their pensions at the post office—as is customary—local Carabinieri have delivered the money to them.

Given all this, it’s little wonder that the Carabinieri are in high demand for training cops across the world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan (whose law enforcement are infamous for their corruption, violence, and dysfunction).

To be sure, the Carabinieri are not without controversies and scandals—no institution is above human failing—but by and large they offer an exceptionally balanced, disciplined, and multifaceted approach to policing. Even in the face of terrorists and powerful crime syndicates, they remain largely restrained and nonviolent; even with the amount of respect they command, they still work for and within the communities they serve; and even with Italy’s infamously dysfunctional government, they remain largely clean and efficient.

It is unlikely Americans would ever except a national police force; Italy’s republic is far more centralized than our federal system. America’s only domestic law enforcement agency, the FBI, is limited to investigations of serious federal crimes and counterterrorism duties; it does not engage in day-to-day policing, let alone community service, and it is hard to imagine that most Americans would be comfortable with the idea.

Still, some of the Carabinieri’s approaches and strategies could be translated to U.S. police forces, and its ability to work well with everyday citizens despite all the pomp and circumstance of their institution proves that one can bridge the divide between cops and civilians.

Did I mention how incredibly dapper they look?

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