Italy sends in troops, but why?
“Should I wait until she’s finished?” asks a soldier from an Italian Alpine regiment, in their distinctive feathered Tyrolean-style hat, to her police colleagues as they patrol an area of Turin notorious for addicts known as “Toxic Park” and see a woman shooting up.
Incidents like this one reported in Corriere della Sera newspaper seem to support Italian police unions’ doubts about Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s initiative, which began this week, to put 3,000 soldiers on the streets of 10 cities for the next six months to help the police fight a supposed crime wave. Some police officers believe military personnel, even those hardened by peace missions abroad, do not have the training needed to fight crime.
But as the first few hundred soldiers took to the streets this week — wearing barrack-dress uniform with sidearms only for street patrols, but camouflage combat gear and rifles for guard duty on “sensitive” targets like embassies and railway stations — many city mayors hailed the exercise as a success. The military man in charge of the operation, Giuseppe Valotto, said the public reaction had been “incredibly positive” and helped improve citizens’ perception of their own safety. Soldiers even notched up a few “collars” in their first few days on joint patrol with the police, hauling in 12 African immigrants in Naples accused of faking fashion brands, chasing a thief through the streets of Bari and nabbing a man in Milan who had snatched the takings of a bar from the till.
Being style-conscious Italians, of course, the troops carried off their street duties with the requisite swagger and Rome’s right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, who has worried about them scaring off the tourists, appeared taken with the Grenadiers of Sardinia helping out with guard duties in Rome, saying: “They looked like they were out of a film, really perfect, they have a great image.”
But the political opposition, and the media, has asked if it is really necessary to draft in a token number of soldiers in a country that already has 230,000 police and carabinieri, and where the crime rate is not alarmingly high compared to the rest of Europe anyway. A new study by research centre Censis released this week shows, for example, that Italy has the lowest murder rate of the biggest European countries and one which is falling already. One union leader suggested the military should be drafted into Italian building sites instead to combat a growing cause of death among Italians — fatal accidents at work, where Italy ranks top in Europe, according to Censis.
The opposition also points out that Berlusconi has mobilised the military while simultaneously reducing funding for the police in the budget.
The foreign press appears sceptical too, with the Financial Times saying in a comment piece this week that Italy’s new conservative government might to well to focus instead on combatting corruption, where the country has the worst record in the European Union apart from Greece, according to Transparency International’s global corruption Index. Forbes magazine called the operation a “diversion tactic” by Berlusconi to shift the focus away from the country’s sagging economy, which it said has the lowest growth in the euro zone and is heading for recession.
But, as often seems to happen in Italy, Berlusconi comes in for fiercer criticism from the foreign press than from the domestic audience. While putting soldiers on the streets to combat a crime wave of dubious proportions might spark protest in some countries, so far it has been limited to a few banners and handbills in the capital saying “Free Rome”.