Is it just me, or does Italy seem to be full of police? Almost everywhere you go, especially in the bigger cities, you will see what looks like an panoply of police forces of varying name and uniform. Coming from the UK, where police presence tends to be far more discreet, it is curious to see that a seemingly peaceful country like Italy feels the need for so much uniformed presence on the streets.
The first type of police force is the Polizia di Stato, or State Police. This is the national civilian police force of Italy and is responsible for general law enforcement, investigating crimes, patrolling, traffic duties, etc.
The next, and perhaps most famous force, are the Carabinieri, officially called the Arma dei Carabinieri. Confusingly, they have pretty much the same duties as the Polizia di Stato, though they will often take the lead in investigating serious crime, national security matters, or crowd control. What sets them apart from the Polizia di Stato is that the Carabinieri are actually a military police force, and in fact the fourth branch of the Italian military (the other three being the Army, Navy and Air Force). The carabinieri have jurisdiction over both civilian and military investigations and are in many ways the ultimate police force in the land.
Next, we have the interestingly named Guardia di Finanza, or the Financial Guard. No, they don’t guard banks as such, but are responsible for investigating financial crimes, including fraud, tax evasion (must be a full time job in Italy!), money laundering, and so on. They are also responsible for defending Italy’s borders. Since most of this is with the sea, the Guardia maintain a fleet of boats and aircraft for patrolling. Yes, the Financial Guard have boats and aircraft. Hey, this is Italy after all.
In some towns and cities, you can also find the polizia municipal, sometimes also known as vigili urbani (city guards). These are a lower-level force responsible for general patrolling and handling of minor offences.
The other two forces are generally less visible, though still worth knowing about. The first is the Corpo Forestale dello Stato, or the State Forest Corps, who are a kind of ranger force responsible for enforcing forestry laws. There is also the Polizia Penitenziaria, or Penitentiary (Prison) Police, who are responsible for transporting and managing prisoners.
Now, after all this, what do you do when you need to call the police? You actually have a choice, at least when you are in the city. You can dial 113 to get the Polizia di Stato, and 112 to get the Carabinieri. For the life of me I have no idea why you would pick one over the other, especially in an emergency, but I do know that out in the countryside you would only be able to call the carabinieri as there is no local polizia statale as such.
The other thing to note is that nearly all Italian police are armed. It does make me wonder why a modern democratic country needs to have military police armed with pistols and sub-machine guns out on the streets, but then again perhaps I am coming from a British perspective. Then again, it wasn’t so long ago in historical terms that Italy was a police state under the Fascists, and it’s possible some of the institutional memory from that era endures yet. This may be a cynical and even entirely incorrect view, however. For many Italians, having armed police is a reassurance against other, less benevolent, armed groups, the Mafia for one.
In summary, it’s probably easiest to just dial 112 if you need the police, unless you specifically want to call the Carabinieri. In many cases, both 112 and 113 will be answered by the same operator anyway, so it probably won’t matter too much.