They carry arms and conduct the country’s most dangerous investigations — like arresting the world’s most nefarious Mafia bosses and hunting down terrorists.
But they also deliver food and necessities to the elderly and help tourists on their way, if they happen to get lost.
They are, in fact, the masters of de-escalation — exactly what a national police force should be.
Italy’s famed Carabinieri are a highly trained police force with a military statute, operating jointly under Italy’s Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, Elisabeth Braw of Foreign Policy reported.
And as law enforcement officers respond to protests against police brutality across the United States with further violence, US 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, Foreign Policy reported.
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, Foreign Policy reported.
Three years ago, members of the Carabinieri arrested the legendary ’Ndrangheta mafia boss Giuseppe Giorgi, also known as The Goat.
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, Foreign Policy reported.
Last December, they arrested more than 300 members of the vicious ’Ndrangheta.
And last month, a team of Carabinieri seized 6 million euros (US$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, Foreign Policy reported.
Yet, 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.
“As they say in Sicily, ‘If you act with respect, you receive respect,’” Mennitti explained.
The Carabinieri’s approach—military duties and advanced weapons skills, but rare use of weapons — is worlds away from US policing.
Even though US police officers are not a military force with corresponding training, since 1997 they have bought US$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, something sorely lacking among police forces in North America, including Canada’s RCMP.
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.
Capable of force, but rarely using it, the Carabinieri could make a promising model for police forces everywhere — and it’s one that US police forces should study.
(Elisabeth Braw directs the Modern Deterrence project at the Royal United Services Institute.)