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American Cops Could Learn a Lesson From Italy’s Carabinieri

Unlike many U.S. police departments, the elite armed Italian force is highly effective and widely respected.

A Carabiniere policeman helps with deliveries of face masks in Palagano, Italy on April 9, during the country's lockdown aimed at stopping the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Carabiniere policeman helps with deliveries of face masks in Palagano, Italy on April 9, during the country's lockdown aimed at stopping the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Three years ago, members of the Carabinieri arrested the legendary ’Ndrangheta mafia boss Giuseppe Giorgi, also known as The Goat, a nickname reportedly coined by a local police commander. Earlier this year, hundreds of Carabinieri, working with Italy’s financial police, the Guardia di Finanza, arrested nearly 100 people in Sicily who—led by two Mafia clans—had systematically pillaged EU funds. Last December, they arrested more than 300 members of the vicious ’Ndrangheta. And last month, a team of Carabinieri seized 6 million euros ($6.5 million) in a raid on a drug-trafficking syndicate, while another team discovered a large weapons cache including a bomb with its fuse connected.

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.

The Carabinieri’s approach—military duties and advanced weapons skills, but rare use of weapons—is worlds away from U.S. policing. Even though U.S. police officers are not a military force with corresponding training, since 1997 they have bought $7.2 billion worth of heavily discounted military surplus equipment. Between 2006 and 2014, that included 79,288 assault rifles, 205 grenade launchers, and 11,959 bayonets from the Pentagon. The influx of equipment has had consequences: A 2017 academic study found that use of the program’s equipment “increases civilian deaths by roughly 129%.”

The Carabinieri, meanwhile, tasked with both the defense of the country and the investigation of serious crime, also specialize in community policing. 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. There have been bad apples: last year two Carabinieri were found guilty of manslaughter in the case of Stefano Cucchi, who died in 2009 after having been beaten in police custody.

But on the whole, the Carabinieri enjoy enormous respect in Italian society. Though that may seem natural today, matters could have turned out very differently. “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.

Capable of force, but rarely using it, could make a promising model for police forces everywhere—and it’s one that U.S. police forces should study. Indeed, the Carabinieri teach their model at NATO’s Stability Policing center in the Italian town of Vicenza. There are clearly differences between the legal systems in the United States and Italy; the American system is a federal one with local police forces, while the Italian government is more centralized. The Carabinieri are a national force, where officers change assignments every few years, much like armed forces everywhere.

Mennitti, the Carabinieri’s head of external relations, for example, transferred to headquarters after commanding the force in the Trentino region. He told me that the regular transfers between duties instilled a culture among officers of constant learning. That learning includes foreign deployments: The Carabinieri are much in demand as trainers of police forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries. And it includes regular training at the Carabinieri’s academies.

Militarization and the excessive use of force have poisoned U.S. policing.

In the United States, the CIA and the FBI are, of course, national forces—but ones tasked with intelligence and investigations, not patrolling and community policing. Even if it could be constitutionally arranged, few Americans would want the FBI turned into a federally run police force. What needs fixing is instead the deterioration in trust between police forces and parts of the community.

Not all U.S. police officers are confrontational and violent. Many conduct phenomenal detective work based on sleuthing and instinct, not use of weapons, and others excel in community relations. And all American officers have to contend with a level of civilian weapons use that far exceeds European levels. But as the events of recent weeks make clear, militarization and the excessive use of force have poisoned U.S. policing.

If Carabinieri can apprehend mafia kingpins without heavy artillery, it should be possible for U.S. police officers to apprehend garden-variety offenders without killing them and without using bullets, helicopters, and armored vehicles. Dysfunctional though it often is, there are a few things Italy can teach the United States. Forceful policing without the use of force is surely one of them.

Elisabeth Braw directs the Modern Deterrence project at the Royal United Services Institute. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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