The curse of the Venetian pickpockets.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 20 2006 4:11 PM

The Curse of the Venetian Pickpockets

A citizen crime patrol is protecting tourists and delighting police.

Street performers at Piazza San Marco.
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Street performers at Piazza San Marco

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. The Cittadini Non Distratti look for a number of giveaways. Most pickpockets are men, they travel in small division-of-labor teams behind tourists, they stop when tourists stop, and their eyes concentrate on vulnerable pockets and bags—not gondolas and pretty buildings. The presence of a teenager is another clue (minors risk lighter punishment). Sudden distractions are an even bigger tip-off: directions sought by a map-wielding questioner, food spilled on a tourist by an apologetic stranger, a heated argument that diverts attention.

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More than 200 Venetians have paid a nominal fee for a Cittadini Non Distratti membership card (considerably fewer walk regular beats). The group's cat-and-mouse game is legal, as long as members are unarmed and grab suspects only after they've slipped a hand into another's pocket. They must then call the cops immediately.

Police Officer Gianni Franzoi, head of Venice's street-crime unit, fields most of those calls—a handful every day. The police were initially leery of what they thought might be a vigilante group targeting foreigners (in Venice, 96 percent of arrested pickpockets come from outside the European Union). But the police soon warmed up. "After a while they realized we were doing things in a civic way, not because of racism," says member Franco Dei Rossi, a street artist who on one recent day jumped out from behind his easel four times to foil thefts. Says Franzoi: "They're sharp, they can recognize suspicious people." Franzoi, who complains of being understaffed, is proud of his "precious" volunteers.

Tourists in Venice, Italy.
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Tourists in Venice, Italy

City Hall is not. The city has refused Cittadini Non Distratti's requests for official recognition and logistical support. "It's do-it-yourself justice; it's a negative gunslinger culture," says Giuseppe Caccia, until recently Venice's deputy mayor for social affairs. That remark belies what is likely a greater concern: embarrassment. City Hall officials privately acknowledge that the para-police group is bad PR, leading some to think that the city can't adequately protect Venice's lifeblood—its tourists.

The Cittadini couldn't care less about damaging City Hall's image. "The government isn't efficient, so as a citizen you rebel," says Flavio Gastaldi, who works in a souvenir shop called La Gondola near Saint Mark's Square, a favorite spot for pickpockets. According to a city official, pickpocketing is down by half from last year's level.

Graziana Campanato, chief justice of the Tribunale dei Minori del Veneto, the region's court for minors, attributes much of that drop to the Cittadini Non Distratti. The group is responsible for more than half of her court's convictions for pickpocketing in Venice. That's partly because the police, who complain of being understaffed, have "limited intervention powers," she says. Also, travelers rarely stick around to testify. "[The Cittadini Non Distratti] manage to catch the culprit, and we see them here as witnesses."

The Cittadini enjoy wide popular support and regular praise in the local press (an unofficial Venice Web site nicknamed them the "Guardian Angels of Tourists"). Members won't let newspapers photograph them to avoid alerting pickpockets; still, many strangers know who they are and stop them in the street to convey thanks. Some Venetians phone the Cittadini instead of the police when they spot petty crime. Members refuse thank-you money from would-be victims and bribes from trapped pickpockets desperate to keep out of jail. "You get every proposition imaginable," says Gianni Scocco, a retired longshoreman who says he has declined offers of free drinks, dinner, and promises of special favors from ensnared female pickpockets.

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."