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Citizens Against Pickpockets
A band of citizens in Venice, Italy, putting the pickpockets out of business. Benjamin Sutherland writes on Slate:

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.

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.

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.

Posted by aalkon at February 21, 2006 10:36 AM

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> The government isn't efficient,
> so as a citizen you rebel,"
> says Flavio

Italy in particular seems to have issues

Posted by: Crid at February 21, 2006 10:06 AM

Thanks to the "gunslinger" crack, I cannot help but visualize Lee Van Cleef moving ominously through the streets of Venice, long-barreled Colt at the ready.

Posted by: That Julia at February 21, 2006 12:37 PM

Pickpockets are scumbags, but I admire their skill. They too are "undistracted citizens."

Posted by: Lena at February 21, 2006 6:06 PM

Amy, Reynolds came late to your party

Posted by: Crid at February 21, 2006 6:49 PM

But, at least he's there:

But new technologies are empowering individuals like never before, and the Davids of the world-the amateur journalists, musicians, and small businessmen and women-are suddenly making a huge economic and social impact.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 21, 2006 6:52 PM

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