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ITALY EXPLAINED

Guardia di Finanza to Carabinieri – who does what in the Italian police force?

Anyone used to one single national police force may struggle with the many different types of officer in Italy, so here is our guide to who does what in the Italian police.

A Carabinieri and state police car at St. Peter's Square in The Vatican on March 28, 2021. Vincenzo
Do you know the Italian Carabinieri from the state police? Phot:o: Vincenzo PINTO/AFP

If you’ve spent time in Italy you will have noticed that there are several different types of police, all of whom wear different uniforms. For the non-native figuring out which officers do what can be pretty confusing, so here’s a guide to the different types of police in Italy.

Polizia di Stato

Officers of Italy’s Polizia di Stato, or national police force, are responsible for maintaining public security and order, as well as carrying out investigations.

The Polizia di Stato was a military police force until 1981, but now operates as a civilian force under the Ministero dell’Interno, or Ministry of the Interior, reporting directly to the Dipartimento della Pubblica Sicurezza (Department of Public Security).

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

Its members wear light blue trousers with a dark magenta stripe running up the side, dark blue jackets, and black boots, and drive light blue-and-white striped cars with POLIZIA written on the side.

Police officers stand next to a branch of Credit Agricole bank in Milan on November 3, 2020.

Police officers stand next to a branch of Credit Agricole bank in Milan. Photo: Miguel MEDINA/AFP

In addition to its other duties, this force is also responsible for ensuring the security of roads, railways, airports, and waterways; enforcing control of borders; conducting customs checks; and monitoring postal and internet communications.

Its members work out of questure, or police stations, all over the country; every major town or city in Italy has a questura.

READ ALSO: 15 things you’ll probably never get used to about living in Italy

Unlike other police forces in Italy, the Polizia di Stato also carries out a number of bureaucratic and administrative functions, such as visa processing and registering tourists staying in hotels.

That means that as a foreigner you’ll need to pay a visit to the questura not just when reporting a crime, but also to perform essential tasks such as applying for and requesting an extension to your residency permit.

Carabinieri

The carabinieri, Italy’s national gendarmerie, are a military force that operates under the Ministero della Difesa, or Ministry of Defence – though for many of their domestic policing functions relating to internal public order and security, they effectively depend on the Interior Ministry to carry out their work.

The force’s name comes from the French word carabinier, meaning ‘soldier armed with a carbine’ (a type of rifle with a shortened barrel). They were initially founded by King Vittorio Emanuele I of Savoy in 1814 to protect what was then the Kingdom of Sardinia.

The Carabinieri carry out many of the same functions as the Polizia di Stato when it comes to maintaining internal law and order. They have a nationwide remit to carry out investigations, and are also responsible for policing the armed forces.

A Carabinieri police officer checks a driver's papers at a road check point on March 9, 2020 in Valsamoggia near Bologna.

A Carabinieri police officer checks a driver’s papers at a road checkpoint in Valsamoggia near Bologna. Photo: Piero CRUCIATTI/AFP

Its officers wear a range of uniforms, but the one you’ll most commonly see is a black four-button jacket with a white shirt underneath and black trousers with wide red stripes running up the side. They live in and operate out of caserme, or barracks.

In addition to domestic policing, carabinieri officers also participate in military operations and peacekeeping missions abroad, and provide security to Italian diplomatic and consular missions.

The Carabinieri absorbed part of Italy’s Corpo Forestale dello Stato or Forestry Police at the start of 2017.

READ ALSO: What are the ten ‘best’ places to live in Italy in 2021?

This disbanded force, which now operates as the Carabinieri’s Command Unit for Forestry, Environmental and Agri-food protection, was responsible for protecting the country’s resources and natural environment; arresting poachers; and providing rescue and disaster relief assistance in mountainous areas.

Guardia di Finanza

The Guardia di Finanza, or Financial Police, are also a militarised police force, but unlike the Carabinieri, they operate under the auspices of the Ministero dell’Economia e delle Finanze (Economy and Finance Ministry) rather than the Ministry of Defence.

The primary responsibility of the Guardia di Finanza is (as you might guess) fighting financial crime, including bribery and corruption, money laundering, credit card fraud, cybercrime, and counterfeiting.

A member of Italy’s Guardia di Finanza Financial Police Force patrols a check-point at an entrance to the small town of Zorlesco on February 26, 2020.

A member of Italy’s Guardia di Finanza Financial Police Force patrols a check-point at an entrance to the small town of Zorlesco on February 26, 2020. MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Along with carrying out some of the same functions as the Polizia di Stato and the Carabinieri relating to domestic law enforcement, including border control, the force also combats illegal drug trafficking.

Because of its focus on smuggling, the Guardia di Finanza has approximately 600 boats and 100 aircraft, and its officers are most frequently seen at border crossings, airports and ports.

Members wear a distinctive grey-green uniform with a yellow flame insignia and  displaying a yellow GUARDIA DI FINANZA label.

Polizia Penitenziaria

The Polizia Penitenziaria, or Penitentiary Police Corps, operates under the Italian Ministry of Justice and is responsible for running the Italian prison system.

The force maintains order and security within and around prisons, conducting armed surveillance along the outer walls and at the entrances to prevent anyone coming or going without authorisation.

A Polizia Penitenziaria police car.
A Polizia Penitenziaria police car. Source: WikiCommons

The Polizia Penitenziaria also supply transportation, escort, and guard services for prisoners being transported from one place to another; and organise work, education, and rehabilitation programmes for inmates.

The force can be called upon to carry out public order and security functions when necessary, including public rescue.

It has its own horse and dog units and naval service.

Polizia Provinciale

Italy’s Polizia Provinciale or Provincial Police are a local police force that operates in only some of Italy’s 109 provinces.

Their primary responsibility is the enforcement of regional and national hunting and fishing laws and traffic rules, but they can also carry out environmental protection and wildlife management activities, and can provide security services when called upon by the authorities.

Members of Italy’s Polizia Municipale police force.
Members of Italy’s Polizia Municipale police force. Source: WikiCommons

Polizia Municipale

Italy’s Polizia Municipale (Municipal Police), Polizia Locale (Local Police), or Vigili Urbani operate in towns and cities across Italy. Each comune (town) in Italy has its own local police force.

As you might expect, a local police force’s remit is much more limited than that of any of the national police forces. Their main duty is to enforce local regulations and traffic laws and deal with petty crimes.

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In larger cities, however, the Polizia Locale may work with national police forces to prevent and investigate major criminal activity.

Their members wear white helmets and have different coloured uniforms depending on the season (blue in the summer, black in the winter). They may ride motorcycles or bicycles, or drive black and white cars.

Member comments

  1. I had an Italian police officer friend tell me that every year Italy pays a fine to the EU for having multiple national police forces. Instead of reforming or banding together they just pay, which to me sounds very Italian.

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LIVING IN ITALY

Are English speakers more likely to be targeted by scams in Italy?

There's no shortage of stories about tourists or new residents being ripped off in Italy. American writer Mark Hinshaw in Le Marche asks how common such scams really are and whether English-speaking foreigners are more likely to be targets.

Are English speakers more likely to be targeted by scams in Italy?

Another foreign resident here in Italy recently related to me a tale of woe from one of her friends who was taken advantage of by a local contractor. She felt she was significantly overcharged for work done and wondered if others had similar experiences. Facebook expat groups are filled with stories of visitors and residents being ripped off, with the reader possibly inferring that this must be a common occurrence.

Obviously, it’s hazardous to make generalizations. Regions differ. Cities and towns differ. People differ. In any country or culture, one is going to encounter people who are scammers, petty thieves, or just plain dishonest.

For many hundreds of years, the Italian peninsula has been inundated by waves of tourists and newcomers from countries that are seen as wealthy. Indeed, it was a prime destination for men and women from aristocratic families on a continental Grand Tour. For the past six decades, young people from wealthier countries have been doing their own low-budget version of this rite of passage, with roving backpackers in shorts and hiking boots seen in every city, large and small. 

Whenever newcomers are seen displaying money – paying for a coffee with a credit card, buying expensive watches or shoes, and eating in overpriced, tourist-oriented restaurants – someone is going to view them as easy pickings. 

There is certainly no shortage of scams at all scales. There are the minor annoyances like the guys in Rome dressed as gladiators who are eager to take pictures with you, only to then insist upon ten euros for the privilege. There are also the listings online of houses that don’t reveal the extent of earthquake damage and want a top-drawer price. Warning: “Caveat emptor.”

READ ALSO: How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

Tourists are the easiest of marks. Thieves and scammers know they are likely to get away before being discovered. Or the victim won’t know how to find the police and report it. Or worse, the police will respond but with shrugged shoulders. 

One episode in the Netflix series, Master of None, captured such an interchange beautifully: the carabinieri were more interested in a fragrant dish made by the thief’s mamma than in solving the crime.

But when someone chooses to live in an Italian town, the dynamic is different. Many Italians are used to foreigners coming during certain seasons to escape undesirable weather in their own country, then disappearing for months. 

In our region locals even have a specific, mildly derisive word for such people: pendoli, like pendulums that swing back and forth. It took us a full year for our neighbors to be convinced that we were staying put.

One obvious problem that generates ill will and a suspicion of being cheated is being unfamiliar with different practices. 

For example, it is not common for a contractor to clean up a work site once a project is completed, as part of the primary contract. This is common practice in the US, but in Italy, that is handled through another separate contract sometimes with another company. So if a foreigner is expecting the service and it doesn’t happen, he can feel that he was tricked into paying more.

Cheap Italian properties aren’t always what unsuspecting buyers hope. Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

Another problem, as I see it, is that many English speakers choose to only develop relationships with other English-speaking expats. Worse, some exhibit a sense of entitlement or even superiority toward service workers, bureaucrats, and shopkeepers. The word gets out fast, especially in small towns.

READ ALSO: From bureaucracy to bidets: The most perplexing things about life in Italy

There’s also the fact that – almost unavoidably  –  foreigners are wealthier than locals. Having a second home in Italy is a sign of wealth. Certainly, a big holiday home with a large pool and gated entry is a dead give-away. Again, the word gets out fast, sometimes to criminals. We have a friend who went on vacation only to return to find his house in the country had been stripped of everything, including the heating system. The thieves pulled up with a big truck and went to town unimpeded. 

It’s vitally important for newcomers to establish relationships with locals. Of course, that means learning the language. Not necessarily all the conjugations of verbs but enough to make social connections. On our little lane with a dozen houses, everyone looks after each other. It would be very difficult for a stranger to pull something off.  

In our five years of living in this village of 1400 people, we have never felt that we were taken advantage of.

We know that we are perceived as the ‘wealthy Americans’ in town. We cannot avoid it. We live in a house that used to hold two big families. We have a panoramic view that everyone remarks on. We receive many packages, with delivery people asking shopkeepers and passersby where we live. They all know.

According to ISTAT, the medium income for Italian households is barely more than 30,000 euros per year. And that is very often with more than one person working. Accordingly, by Italian standards, we ARE wealthy, even though we do not consider ourselves to be. (In the US, our income would be considered close to poverty level in some places.) So, relatively wealthy Americans cannot help but stand out.

READ ALSO: ‘How I got an elective residency visa to retire in Italy’

Although we have never been victimized (knock on wood), I have no doubt that foreign residents in other towns have been. 

It may be more common in parts of Italy with seasonal hordes of tourists. Foreigners can be seen as easy marks, as they don’t understand the language and sometimes are careless when it comes to showing signs of wealth. 

Some people seem to fall for scams. I once watched, from an upper-story window, tourists being repeatedly robbed of their money by a shell game.

It was like a bizarre theatrical performance, with shills planted in the audience who would ‘win’ their game. Within minutes, with lightning-fast shuffles, hundreds of euros were taken from unsuspecting players.

A mocked-up ‘shell game’: one way unsuspecting tourists are parted from their money in Italy. Photo: Mark Hinshaw

Unfortunately, as an expat, one can be both welcomed by some people and taken advantage of by others. But that’s happened to me in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago – places I know well in my own country. One cannot always be vigilant. Or paranoid.

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner living in Le Marche with his wife. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

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