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?

Ochi Day

On this day in 1940, Italy invaded Greece after Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected Benito Mussolini’s ultimatum demanding that Greece give up its territory. It is commemorated as a public holiday called “Ochi Day”, because the reply was said to have been simply “No”. (Ochi in Greek).

Unsurprisingly, such a terse response by an underdeveloped little country could not stand, and the Italians launched their invasion almost immediately. The rough terrain and unexpectedly fierce resistance by the Greek Army forced the Italians to fall back, with the Greeks launching a counter-offensive that wiped out a key division and ground into a stalemate. The event is regarded as the “first Axis setback of the entire war”, with the Greeks “surprising everyone with the tenacity of their resistance.”

Indeed, the Germans were forced to intervene on behalf of their ally, whom they henceforth regarded as a liability. It took the combined efforts of Italy, Germany, and Bulgaria (a little-remembered Axis satellite) fighting on two fronts to expend Greece’s limited manpower and resources. The country finally fell on June 1941, more than seven months after the first Italian invasion. The conflict spelled the beginning of the end of Italy as a major Axis power; a few more setbacks were to follow, rendering them a mere satellite dependent on Germany. The Greek War also negatively impacted Axis forces in the North African Theater.

Uniquely, Greece would be occupied by three different Axis forces until its liberation in 1944: the Italians, Germans, and Bulgarians. Nevertheless, they would maintain one of the largest and most tenacious resistance forces in the Second World War: one resistance group alone, the National Liberation Front (EAM in Greek) counted 1.8 million members by 1944, out of a total population of 7.5 million.

Pictured are some political cartoons from the time that widely mocked Mussolini and gave some hope that the Axis weren’t so unstoppable after all (a hope that would not be realized, at great cost, for nearly five years).

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My personal favorite is the one that references the Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles, with the “Roman Axe” (or “fasces”, from where the word fascism derives) standing in for the sword that symbolizes inevitable peril for those in power (the lion represents the U.K., which attempted to aid Greece during its conflict).

Italian Firm Joins Global Effort to Develop Nuclear Fusion

Globalization at work: Italian energy company Eni — one of the “Big Six” fossil fuel companies and the eleventh largest company in the world — is working with researchers from the U.S. and worldwide to produce energy from nuclear fusion, perhaps the most promising form of energy conceivable (it is a safe, sustainable, virtually inexhaustible source of power that creates virtually no pollution or emissions).

The Italian firm is investing $50 million into a company founded by former MIT scientists to create the first commercially viable nuclear fusion plant, and is also carrying out research with MIT on plasma physics, advanced fusion, and electromagnetic technologies.

Problems this big need all the capital, resources, and talent humanity can muster. Italy is just one of several nations working towards this cause. We need more cross-border coordination of this sort.

The World’s Healthiest Countries

According to the Bloomberg Global Health Index, which includes such factors as life expectancy, access to health care, and malnutrition, these are the world’s healthiest countries:

The top ten nations were:

  1. Italy
  2. Iceland
  3. Switzerland
  4. Singapore
  5. Australia
  6. Spain
  7. Japan
  8. Sweden
  9. Israel
  10. Luxembourg

Continue reading

Italy Launches Peacekeeping Force To Safeguard World Culture

Count on Italy, with its rich history and vast cultural heritage — including the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world — to spearhead the first “cultural peacekeeping force” of its kind.

Citing the Milan-based Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Worldcrunch’s Le Blog reports that the taskforce, which will operate under the auspices of the United Nations, will be comprised of both Italian military personnel and various experts in art history, antiquities, and restoration projects. Continue reading

Prisoners and the Art of Winemaking

There are many things wrong with the U.S. justice system, but perhaps the chiefest problem is high recidivism: as of 2011 (the most recent reliable data I could find) an average of 43.3 percent of prisoners fall back into crime. Clearly, the rehabilitation system isn’t living up to its name.

One of the key causes of this is the lack of skills and opportunities among the largely poor and marginalized groups that make up the prison population. Easing up on the restrictions imposed on the formerly incarcerated, while imparting them with marketable skills, would go a long way in improving their lives and those of their families and communities (which in turn would help the U.S. economy as a whole, given the size and proportion of this population).

Italy is another country struggling with this problem — in fact, the rate of re-offense is as high as 80 percent, and Italian prisons meet similar criticisms regarding the poor and counterproductive treatment of prisoners. So some enterprising reformers decided to address the matter in a uniquely Italian way: teaching prisoners the art of winemaking, which is being spearheaded in the penal colony of Gorgona in Tuscany. As the New York Times reported:

For the past two years, Frescobaldi enologists and agronomists have imparted their know-how to a group of the island’s inmates as part of a rehabilitation program that aims to provide skills for life after their release.

Recidivism is high, around 80 percent, for the inmates of Italian prisons, “but instead, if you give people education, training, or access to a job, recidivism drops to 20 percent,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, and the driving force behind the project.

Giuseppe Fedele, an educator at Gorgona, where training programs have been going on for years, said that “the best thanks a prisoner can show when he is released from here is not to be sent back to prison.”

As you would imagine, the details of this program are both interesting and inspiring:

First opened in 1869, the prison operates like a working farm. Some inmates carry out agricultural chores — growing fruit and vegetables, raising livestock, and making cheeses and bread — while others work in maintenance or in the kitchen and commissary.

“It’s still a prison, but the day flies because you’re working. It’s one thing to be in a cell for 12 hours, another to be outside, busy doing something,” said Santo Scianguetta, who has six years to go on a 16-year sentence, adding that the experience of working in the vineyard was building his confidence. “I think a lot about getting out. And now I see hope in the future.”

Most of the inmates here are serving the final years of long sentences for serious crimes, including murder. Prison officials asked that for reasons of privacy, reporters refrain from specifying their individual crimes.

Projects like the Frescobaldi initiative make inmates feel like “the protagonists of their incarceration, and not passive recipients where the state is the enemy,” said Mr. Mazzerbo, the prison director, who has lobbied to extend similar programs to other Italian prisons.

“It costs nothing to change the mentality” of an inmate, Mr. Mazzerbo said. “You can do that anywhere. You don’t need an island.”

Several penitentiaries are already involved in economic activities, and at least two others produce wine. Some penitentiaries are involved in food or fashion initiatives, and products can be ordered from the Justice Ministry website.

Prisoners here receive a monthly wage, about two thirds of what they would get on the outside, based on the provincial agricultural labor contract. “It’s good not to depend on our families for money,” said Ciro Amato, who is serving a 30-year sentence. “At least here you get an opportunity. In many cases people leave prison angrier than before.”

It’s a small start, and not without its challenges, but it is definitely worth trying. While there are similar initiatives in the U.S. (albeit many of which are accused of being exploitative and underpaying), we should definitely take steps to make such programs the norm, along with minimizing such an unusually high rate of incarceration to begin with (although that is a different story for another post).