Police ride around Rome a glimpse inside a non-violent city — but watch your wallet

Gerardo Mastrangelo and Gian Cristian Salimbene before their Saturday night shift.
Gerardo Mastrangelo and Gian Cristian Salimbene before their Saturday night shift.

About 75 percent of all businesses in Italy are family run, meaning three out of every four Italian boys know what they’ll do when they grow up by the time they’re old enough to count change. Gian Cristian Salimbene was different. Growing up in Turin, he didn’t want to work in a factory like his father. He wanted to be a cop. He wanted it for the usual noble reasons. He wanted to help people. He wanted to keep people from hurting other people. In his three years on Rome’s police force, he has never fired a gun. He has never heard a gun fired. Neither has his partner, Gerardo Mastrangelo, who joined the force about the same time.

That tells you something about Rome. It tells you something about how safe it is and how safe any city is when guns are nearly impossible to legally acquire.

I met Salimbene and Mastrangelo at the police station across the Tiber River from the Olympic Coliseum. It was Saturday night and I was going on my second police ride around Rome. I did it 14 years ago for a chapter on crime in Rome in my book, “American Gladiator in Rome: Finding the Eternal Truth in the Infernal City.” One cop that night had been on the force for 17 years and never pulled his gun.That evening was as uneventful as a stroll through a city park. We descended on an apartment where a mentally disturbed youth was already apprehended after he pulled a knife on his father. We checked the documents of a trans prostitute. About the most tense moments I saw were three Russian tourists, who, by the looks of their curvy young goombahs, had all the trappings of Russian mafia, refusing to pay for a cheese plate because they didn’t like the cheese. Watching this big burly cop explain the properties of individual Italian cheeses to Russian mobsters was remarkable insight into how Italian men are in touch with their own culture.

Salimbene and Mastrangelo were going to further impress upon me the safety of my adopted city. I’ve always been fascinated by the soft underbelly of touristy towns. What’s it like behind the back-lit monuments, art galleries and romantic piazzas? Where’s the graft? The violence? The danger?

Growing up in America, you can find that in any city. Every metropolitan area in the U.S. has neighborhoods where guns are rampant and murder is common. According to City-Data.com, for the last 10 years, Detroit, a city of 700,000 people, has averaged 345 murders. Oakland, Calif., (pop. 404,000) has averaged 106, Baltimore (pop. 622,000) 234.

According to the Rome police department records and ANSA, Italy’s wire service, Rome, with a population of 2.6 million, has averaged 30.

“The center of Rome is full of police, military, Carabinieri,” Salimbene tells me. “People from other countries, like Brazil, tell me that you are not able to walk on the street during the night in those cities like in Brazil. They can rob you.”

Or worse. I was on assignment in Rio de Janeiro last August and a man cycling around popular Lago Rodrigo was murdered for his bike in the middle of the day. Nearly every local I met had been robbed at least once.

In America, gun laws that aren’t much stricter than laws against chewing tobacco have turned the country into a war zone. Two years ago, guns killed 33,169 people in America, 21,175 by suicide. Italy had only 475 total homicides. For two years Salimbene worked for an import company in Manhattan. New York has remarkably cleaned up its streets but the gun laws came as a shock to an Italian such as Salimbene.

“It’s something they need to review,” he says. “They need to understand better. There are two controversial rights: One, they say, ‘OK, we need to defend ourselves from people who commit crimes’ and on the other side there are people who use guns. It’s easy to get shot if many people carry guns. It’s too easy.”

Salimbene and Mastrangelo are standing inside the high walls of the station gate. A small watch tower stands on the corner looking out over the leafy middle-class neighborhood. A long line of about 35 turquoise police cars await the signal to take off on night patrols. They both are extremely fit. Their tight polo shirts emphasize strong physiques. Salimbene, 31, is from Turin and moved to Rome three years ago. Mastrangelo, 28, hails from Salerno, just north of the Amalfi Coast, and came to Rome after serving in the army. Both seem to love their job.

“I’ve always dreamed about it,” Salimbene says in excellent English. “I could’ve become a priest. You have something inside you and just want to do it. It’s about the adrenaline. It’s about the kind of work you do: You do something good for society, for other people. You arrest people. You bust criminals.”

Suddenly a horn sounds. Everyone piles into their cars and take off. If sirens were blaring it would look like we were responding to a terrorist attack. Then Salimbene says something that reminds me I’m in Italy.

“First, we take a coffee,” he says.

A coffee break at Caffe Oppio outside the Colosseum.
A coffee break at Caffe Oppio outside the Colosseum.

I climb in the back seat after waving off Salimbene’s warning that the seat is uncomfortable. I’m 6-foot-3. I’m used to tight quarters in cars, airplanes, buses. This seat, however, is a torture chamber. It’s made of hard plastic with so little legroom I must spread my knees against the back of the front seat like a yoga instructor. A piece of hard plastic, serving no apparent purpose but to dig into the passenger’s spinal column, sticks out from the back of my seat.

“You were right about this seat,” I say.

“It’s designed that way,” Salimbene says. “It’s for prisoners. So they can’t move around back there.”

We pull up on Via Nicola Salvi, the street hovering over the Colosseum where the last free parking space was seen sometime around 1975. Mastrangelo stops right next to another parked car and we get out.

“That’s a good part of the job,” he says with a smile.

We go into Caffe Oppio, one of my favorite bars in Rome. It’s where you can sit outside and have reasonably priced drinks and look across the street at the 2,000-year-old Colosseum, back lit in all its historic glory. After about 6 p.m., the tourists leave and in their place are neighborhood locals — plus a gaggle of cops getting caffeinated for the night.

I ask Salimbene about a common topic of conversation among locals, both Romans and expats alike. Has Italy’s wave of immigration increased crime in the city? Italy’s immigrant population has reached 9.5 percent.

“Yes,” he says. “Stealing. Robberies. Crimes related to violence. Drugs. Most of the people we arrest are from other countries. I’d say 85 percent.”

He doesn’t say it maliciously. He doesn’t pepper his explanation with racist epithets as I’ve heard American cops talk about their jobs. It was straight matter of fact. In truth, whether it’s immigrants or not, Rome does have its fair share of crime outside of murders. Two years ago Rome had 513 car thefts and 4,150 robberies. A woman I used to date was walking behind the Termini train station and got roughed up by four men — all Italian — and had her purse stolen.

Nowhere does Rome leave a bigger stain on the police blotter than pickpockets. It’s No. 2 in the world behind Barcelona, chalking up 1,848 in 2014. When I lived here the first time from 2001-03, gypsies roamed in packs with faster hands than NBA point guards. My then-girlfriend got pilfered for $400 in Castroni, the international food store near the Vatican. I foiled one pickpocket attempt in the Porto Portese flea market. An increase in police patrols has broken up a lot of the roaming gypsy bands but they remain a force. When a gypsy walks in wearing a dress that looks like the inside of 1968 VW bus, Italian women will yell, “ATTENZIONE! GUARDA LE VOSTRE BORSE! GUARDA LE VOSTRE BORSE!” (ATTENTION! WATCH YOUR PURSES! WATCH YOUR PURSES!) The gypsies don’t even flinch. They’re used to it.

“They commit a lot of crimes,” Salimbene says. “They live with crime. It’s their way to live. They steal. They commit robberies. They get into houses and steal money, gold. It’s a pretty big issue.”

I ask him what’s his favorite part of the job.

“I like to understand new things, new ways how to use the law,” he says. “I like to know better my city, know the people and all the characteristics of people and areas. It’s about using the law with people even if they don’t commit crimes. You start to have a lot of knowledge.”

After the coffee, we jump back into the car and head out. We head toward Piazza del Popolo, taking the narrow pedestrian entrance that once was the arch where the victorious Roman armies marched through. I’ve never driven through the piazza before and the mass of tourists eye me in the back seat. I’m wondering what crime they think I committed. I pass up the temptation to ask Salimbene and Mastrangelo to arrest the annoying street musician juggling to music.

Tonight’s patrol is Tuscolana, a lower middle-class neighborhood in southeast Rome. It’s one of the more dangerous places in the city but you wouldn’t know it driving up and down Via Tuscolana as we do this Saturday night. It’s lined with trees, small retail shops, a gaming house, a popular pub. It could pass for any neighborhood in Rome.

I ask Salimbene what’s the most dangerous neighborhood in the city.

“Tor Bella Monaca,” he says without hesitation. “We send two or three cars from our station there every night.”

I tell him about the three-part series I did in January on Rome’s most notorious neighborhood nine miles east of the Termini train station. I cruised at night when my local guide, visibly nervous, wouldn’t even let me step out of the car to take a picture. I interviewed the Canadian-Italian bar owner a day before a car smashed through his front window and robbed the place [LINK] I interviewed a recovering junkie who’d spent 15 years years in nine different prisons and still lives there. [LINK]

“You see,” Salimbene says. “Even in Rome there are areas that aren’t safe.”

We head down Via Tuscolana for the first of so many times I practically memorize the business names. Suddenly, the police dispatcher calls out something and Mastrangelo steps on the gas. We’re going 100 kilometers per hour (60 mph) through side streets trying to reach an allegedly crazed old man who is disoriented and lost. You’ve heard of crazy Italian drivers? Italian cops seem crazy when they drive. But they’re the best drivers in the world. Mastrangelo weaves in and out of traffic without even getting near the brake. If the seat belt and coffin-sized back seat hadn’t pinned me in place, I would’ve hit the back windshield like a fly.

The dispatcher tells us to stand down. An officer had reached the old man. We’re on a small service road and Salimbene tells Mastrangelo to stop. He sees someone. He gets out of the car and asks a young Italian with short-cropped hair and a neat moustache to show his papers. He hands Salimbene his identity card and papers for his car without protest. Salimbene hands them back and we return to the car.

“Why’d you stop him?” I ask.

“Sixth sense,” he says.

The next call comes quickly. It’s a noisy neighbor. We go to a rundown single-story apartment complex with a crumbling driveway and some ratty plants in the corridor. We knock on the door and a pretty, middle-aged brunette woman with a hulking son answer the door. They talk for about 20 minutes, telling them a neighbor has been pounding walls for about a month. They’re tired of it.

Salimbene knocks on the neighbor’s door. Opening the big sliding cage-like door is an old man with big glasses. He explains his side of the story, frequently shaking his hands in prayer formation, the Italian hand gesture for “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Salimbene and Mastrangelo patiently hear his side.

“It’s been a long time this has been going on,” Salimbene says later. “The person doesn’t want to deal with this anymore.I told her, you are free to go to the police station and explain this. Maybe you talk to the person in charge that cares about the building.

“He said he hasn’t done anything and is not making noises. I just tell him to make less noise and don’t bother any other person in the building.”

The next call sounds a little more serious. It’s a fight. Mastrangelo flies through the streets, seemingly on air. Space seems to mysteriously appear between cars that didn’t exist seconds earlier. I feel as if I’m in the middle of a magic act. We arrive at a corner and there are two old disheveled men, in their 50s or 60s. One seems to have a dent in the middle of his nose. His long-sleeve white shirt is covered in blood. Shards of a broken liter-sized beer bottle lay in the grass around him. He’s sitting on a folding chair talking smack to a short, chubby man standing off to the side.

“STRONZO! (ASSHOLE!)” the bloodied man says drunkenly to the other. “VAFFANCULO! (GO FUCK YOURSELF!) RITORNI IN ROMANIA! (GO BACK TO ROMANIA!)”

He then makes a few threatening steps toward him and Mastrangelo gets in a way, gently leading him back to the chair. The two cops are joined by two others, plus two plainclothesmen in jeans and sneakers. In Rome, fights are rare. So are drunks. Italians don’t drink very much. Drunk driving arrests must be among the lowest in Europe.

But the man in the white shirt is absolutely hammered. Mastrangelo and Salimbene talk to the bloodied man until an ambulance comes. The man says the pair were fighting and the other one head butted him in the face. After he’s placed in with some protest, they turn to the Romanian who explains his side with many shrugs of the shoulders. He says in excellent Italian that he’s been in Rome since 2006 and friends with the other for five years. No one finds out what the argument is about except, Salimbene says, “stupid things.”

No witnesses saw the head butt. No arrest is made. The police collect all the contact information.

“The most important thing is what the hospital is going to say,” Salimbene says. “How many days will he need to recover.”

The last call comes about a domestic argument. Domestic fights are taken more seriously in Rome ever since May 29 when a 27-year-old man stalked his ex-girlfriend to her car, set it on fire and then set her on fire when she tried to flee. He watched her burn alive. It was the 55th “femicide,” or domestic violence, incident in Italy this year. Last year it had 128. We whiz through the streets onto a quiet, dark street behind a supermarket where a young couple are talking calmly. The police bring over a woman, a stunning 23-year-old with long brown hair and fit physique who keeps saying, “Niente. Niente. Mi dispiace. (Nothing. Nothing. I’m sorry.)” The man, tall and slender with a untucked long-sleeve shirt, keeps giving the shaking hands in prayer motion.

As the police chat with the man, I find myself next to the woman who says, “Ciao.” We start chatting in Italian until my American accent hits her over the head.

“You’re American? You’re from Oregon?” she says in really good English. “I love America. I love Oregon. I went there last year.”

It turns out, she’s a Ukraine who came here to finish high school and never left. I ask her some delicate questions about their alleged fight. Apparently, she lives with her boyfriend and she came to visit her parents in the nearby apartment house. He came over, very tired, when she didn’t want him to and they carried out their argument in the street. A car passing by saw them arguing and called the police.

That’s it.

We talk about bad Italian food in America, Russian vodka and fat Americans. The woman is bubbly and relaxed. Her boyfriend noticeably calms down as Mastrangelo and Salimbene quietly talk to him. They let them go but they tell the woman that if you ever get hit, she must call the police and can also use some social services.

“We make sure they didn’t have any record of violence,” Salimbene says. “He’s clean. We see the girl didn’t have any marks. They’re good kids.”

It’s midnight. Their shift is over. We go to the police station on Tuscolana
where Salimbene spends 30 minutes filling out a report on the fight. Then comes the most dangerous part of the night.

They drive me home.

In the car before the wild ride home.
In the car before the wild ride home.

Salimbene takes over the wheel and flies 120 kilometers per hour down side streets. He’s dashing around cars, screeching around corners, flying through intersections. As I’m stretching the elasticity of the un-elastic seat belt, I see the police flashers reflecting in passing store windows that are nothing more than a blur.

“Why are the blinkers on?” I squeal.

“Because we’re going fast,” Salimbene says.

We squeeze through two lanes of cars — including one lane that’s coming our direction — going 120. One slip of the wheel, one person running across the street, and there’s blood, glass and destruction.

In a lame attempt at asking a leading but inoffensive question, I bleat, “You ever have an accident?”

“No. We get a lot of practice.”

They stop in front of my apartment building, I believe, about 90 seconds after we left the station 6.5 miles away. I pick up the coins that had rolled down my pant leg, thank them and walk up to my fourth-floor flat on very shaky legs.

It was the highlight of a fairly dull night. Not every police ride in Rome is dull but I was impressed how Salimbene and Mastangelo kept things dull. Their calm demeanor never escalated any situation. They never raised their voices. They were more interested in helping the people than making an arrest.

Two police rides don’t make a city’s reputation safe in my eyes. But statistics do. So do 2 ½ years of life experiences. As I’m writing this, someone in America is using the gun they bought to protect their home to shoot their cheating wife instead. Meanwhile, in Rome, I just make sure I wear my money belt.