Citizen Dicks


Plain-clothes petty theft prevention and crowd control are two areas of police work that American and Italian citizens have taken it upon themselves to insource, in two interesting recent stories.

From Venice, we have a group called Undistracted Citizens, which doesn't sound very charming until you say it in Italian: Cittadini Non Distratti. The Cittadini work the tourist crowds in the Stockholm of the South, looking for pickpockets, stopping thefts, and staying around to testify against the crooks. There's some reason to believe their efforts may be paying off. Last year, an Interior Ministry report gave partial credit for an eight-year nationwide drop in pickpocketing to "reciprocal collaboration among the citizenry, law enforcement and institutions." (Go here for a briefing on correlation and causation.) Some cops like the group, but the city government has refused to give it official status and support—which is probably a blessing.

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.

Whole story here.

Meanwhile, Ken Schultz sends along this CNN story about the Patriot Guard Riders, who have begun showing up at military funerals to counteract protests from the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church congregation:

Phelps believes American deaths in Iraq are divine punishment for a country that he says harbors homosexuals. His protesters carry signs thanking God for so-called IEDs—explosives that are a major killer of soldiers in Iraq.

The bikers shield the families of dead soldiers from the protesters, and overshadow the jeers with patriotic chants and a sea of red, white and blue flags.

"The most important thing we can do is let families know that the nation cares," said Don Woodrick, the group's Kentucky captain. "When a total stranger gets on a motorcycle in the middle of winter and drives 300 miles to hold a flag, that makes a powerful statement."

I saw a CNN report on the Guard Riders yesterday, and it reminded me of the movie theater talking constant: When one person is talking and another person yells at him to shut up, the cumulative effect is to double the level of noise, not reduce it. But for the bereaved, I guess even slightly irritating support is better than no support at all. More importantly, the Riders may head off another legislative mistake. As Brian Doherty noted recently, Phelps' movement has prompted 14 states to consider laws to outlaw these kinds of protests. That's what our friends the krauts call a schlechte Verbesserung, Verschlimmbesserung or "bad improvement."

I can't be the only one who years ago assumed Fred Phelps would turn out to be some kind of performance artist pulling a gag, but he seems to be for real. Not even the distilled essence of Danny Hoch and John Leguizamo could invent a detail like that jacket he always wears. It looks almost like Broncos jacket, but the colors are wrong. What is that little logo on the left breast? Anyway, Phelps (who interestingly enough is a West Point washout, according to his bio) is a real guy, no doubt tormented by hellish visions of irresistable beefcake in some nightly Gethsemane we can't even imagine. Better to confront him with chants and off-key singing than with some well intentioned but blunt new law.

Update: Commenter mrdmrd points out that Phelps wears a University of Kansas jacket.