February 21, 2006


Anton Faur is a migrant pickpocket. When he recently showed up for work in Venice, his hopes were high: Every year, around 12 million tourists throng and jostle through the city's narrow streets. This time, though, the target-rich environment didn't bear fruit. In just five days, the 17-year-old Romanian was arrested twice. "Venice is beautiful, but not for work," he complained as police booked him.

But it wasn't the police who caught him. Faur was nabbed both times by a civilian antipickpocket patrol called Cittadini Non Distratti, or Undistracted Citizens. Members, who call themselves "Citizens," walk around Venice looking for pickpockets. As thievery spikes during Carnival, when tipsy tourists mob the streets, the group increases patrols. . . .

Plainclothes cops like to think they blend right in. Artful dodgers think otherwise. "You can tell right away who's undercover," says a 28-year-old female pickpocket from Bosnia who requested anonymity. (Her hint: Look for the men in jeans, blue T-shirts, running shoes, and fanny packs roaming about with cell phones and indiscreet eyes.) Guessing if a passerby might intervene is next to impossible. After a recent wallet-snatch, a bystander seized her and held on until the uniforms showed up. She went to jail.

Rome Police Chief Aldo Zanetti says this "participative security" is increasingly common in Italy, and this new culture seems to be working. According to numbers in a 2005 Interior Ministry report, pickpocketing and purse-snatching have declined nationwide every year since 1997. The authors attribute part of this success to "reciprocal collaboration among the citizenry, law enforcement and institutions."

Read the whole thing. Somebody should write a book on this kind of phenomenon. Oh, wait. . . .