They are the butt of jokes among both Italians and foreigners alike, regularly characterised as low on intelligence, high on self-importance and generally more of hindrance than help. After all, who in Italy hasn’t been extravagantly flagged down by a Carabiniere in steeply peaked cap, black flannel trousers trimmed with a broad red stripe and white Sam Browne belt, striding out into the road and waving what looks like a large plastic lollipop, as puffed up and purposeful as if they are on the hunt for a dangerous criminal or about to save you from imminent catastrophe, only to find it is just a routine driving licence check. And who hasn’t got caught up in a cacophonous gridlock in some town centre only to find that it isn’t an accident or roadworks causing the hold-up, just a couple of Carabinieri on traffic duty? And who hasn’t got their own favourite apocryphal story demonstrating their limited deduction skills? Mine is the one told to me by a young Italian student years ago: she and two friends were stopped at the roadside and asked to present ‘i documenti’. On noticing that the two males in the car had the same first name, the razor-sharp Carabiniere, with the comically misplaced conviction of Inspector Clouseau, observed “So, you’re brothers, then…”, only to follow this up, in response to their sniggered denials, with “Well, cousins, then…”
It’s unfortunate that they are characterised in this way, though, as the Carabinieri have a long and proud history. The Ancient Corps of the Royal Carabinieri was founded in Turin in 1814 by King Victor Emmanuel 1 of Savoy as the police force of Kingdom of Sardinia. This was the forerunner of the unified Kingdom of Italy that was created in 1861 when the Carabinieri were promoted to ‘First Force’ in the new national military organisation. Just to provide some historical perspective, the oldest police force in the UK, London’s Metropolitan Police Force, was founded in 1829, while the UK’s first national police force was in fact the Irish Constabulary founded in 1837. Meanwhile the first police force in the US was established in Boston in 1838. The Carabinieri are technically a military force with law enforcement, crime detection and civil protection duties in relation to the civilian and military populations, and in 2000 they officially became a separate branch of Italy’s armed services. As such, they have participated in peace-keeping missions in Kosovo. Afghanistan and Iraq where they have also been involved in the training and reconstruction of local police forces, while on the home front they were very much at the sharp end of efforts to overcome the Red Brigades as well as the crackdown against the Mafia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, suffering many fatalities in the process.
They are also very proud of the fact that they have a presence in every part of the country, which is seen as fundamental to the institution’s purpose. There are some 4600 local stations scattered around the country, meaning that all but the smallest communities are likely to have their own local police presence, as we in Montelupone do. And I have to say, our personal experience of the local Carabinieri has been surprisingly positive. While unable to track down the thieves who carried out the burglaries we suffered in 2018 and 2019, they did at least make efforts to trace the items that were stolen and we were invited into the station on a number of occasions to see if our possessions were among the latest haul of stolen goods they’d seized, although none ever were. Arguably just as valuable, however, was the personal service we received from local officers as part of their investigations. In the days and weeks following the break-ins, we received regular home visits, as much to make sure we were all right as to keep us informed of progress. The station commander – with whom I am now on first name terms (Massimiliano, since you ask) – even gave me his mobile number with an invitation to call him personally with any concerns and also to let him know whenever we go away so he can include our place on the route of local patrols. Naturally, it is impossible to be sure whether this actually happens, but one thing we can be sure of is that the turning into the lane directly behind our house has become a regular location for one of their driving licence checkpoints.
This level of personal service has not been a one-off either. A few months ago, someone fraudulently took out a landline contract in my name and on querying the matter with my provider it turned out that the only way of seeking redress was to make a formal complaint to the Carabinieri in the first instance. Finding it strange, if not rather excessive, that the process should involve the Carabinieiri at all, I messaged Massimiliano to check I had been given the correct information and he immediately confirmed that I had – they apparently take any kind of identity theft very seriously – and invited me in to the station. I spent a good couple of hours in his office while he took a detailed statement for me to take back to my phone provider so I could progress my claim. He then dropped round a few days later to let me know they had requested the relevant documentation from my provider, and called me a few weeks later to invite me back in to the station to go through the documents they had received. It then took another hour or so in Massimiliano’s office to make a further statement confirming that the signatures on the documents were not mine and that I had not been in the shop on the dates on the contracts, and so on. It all seemed incredibly cumbersome and time-consuming, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by the time and effort that was going into pursuing my actually very minor complaint. For goodness’ sake, since actually claiming my refund – a contractual rather than a criminal matter – was still down to me, Massimiliano even insisted that I call him if I needed him to rattle my provider’s cage a little.
All a very far cry from the UK, though, where, even for reporting far more serious crimes than we have experienced, the very idea of being able to walk into a local police station and speak to a named officer, who then not only makes home visits to keep you informed of progress, but also gives you his mobile phone number – and who, incidentally, also hoots or waves in greeting whenever he sees you – would be completely unthinkable; laughable, almost. So yes, the Carabinieri may at times seem ridiculously pompous and a bit slow on the uptake, but – and perhaps this is because we have been victims of crime ourselves – there is something that Mr Blue-Shirt and I actually find very reassuring in knowing and being known by our local Carabinieri, as well as in their hands-on, community-based policing style. And, as foreign incomers, it also helps make us feel much more part of our adopted community: I was flagged down on my way to the gym recently by another of the local officers we have come to know, and when he saw who it was in the car, he simply pulled down his mask (‘It is I, Leclerc’ – style), grinned broadly, waved in greeting and then directed me on my way without even asking to see my driving licence. I found it an absurdly heart-warming experience – and not just because I was running late and was over the speed limit…