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Police On Guard in Italy’s ‘Tourist Traps’

July 25, 1995

NAPLES, Italy (AP) _ A woman screams. A motorbike lurches in a full-throttle jolt. She makes a futile lunge then watches her purse pull away in a trail of blue-gray exhaust.

``Got ’em,″ snaps the motorcycle cop who saw the crime from two blocks away.

His 650 Honda Dominator swoops up the cobblestone side street, picking up speed through a thicket of pointing fingers. ``That way. Go, go,″ people cry.

A moment later, the officer has the motorbike pinned against a wall. Two teen-age boys are under arrest and the purse is back in the hands of a bewildered Swiss tourist.

The bust by Naples’ anti-purse snatching squad fit nicely into their hammer-style playbook: a roaring presence, a quick arrest _ and a tourist who retains her bag and perhaps a good impression of Naples.

With millions of summer tourists again filling Italian cities, authorities are taking measures to clamp down on the annual feeding frenzy among purse snatchers, pickpockets and scam artists.

In the southeastern port of Bari, police began escorting tourists to and from the ferry docks last month. The plan was abandoned after officials complained it gave tacit recognition to the city’s outlaw image. Now, special squads are stationed along the highway to the docks and signs are posted to keep motorists from wandering onto city streets.

Up the Adriatic coast in Rimini, undercover police units are riding buses most used by tourists. In Rome, additional officers are assigned to the Colosseum and other main tourist sites.

Naples police, meanwhile, have stepped up the activity of their year-round Falchi, or ``street falcon,″ patrols. At any time of day, at least a third of the 100-member force is roaming portside boulevards and weaving through the hilly back streets. Each two-motorcycle team makes about five arrests on an average week.

Most victims are usually unharmed. But occasionally, some are pulled to the ground or injured in a scuffle. On Monday, a 77-year-old Danish women died after complications from surgery on her leg that was broken in a tussle with purse snatchers in Naples on July 2.

``The purse snatchers make their living off being quick and agile on their motorbikes. We fight back the same way _ only we’re quicker and stronger,″ said Carlo Solimeni, head of the Falchi squad.

In the oil-stained back lot at police headquarters, a Falchi officer juices the throttle with a couple flicks of the wrist. Then he squeals off into the din of Naples traffic.

He darts through cars along the port, past some of the main tourist hotels. Only a complete disregard for red lights identifies him as police. He wears jeans and a loose green golf shirt that covers his pistol. And, of course, he has stylish sunglasses.

``I buy the kind that wrap around your ear so they don’t fly off in a chase,″ said the officer, who cannot be named under police rules.

Up in the warren of side streets, the motorcycle’s engine echoes off the buildings. The officer believes the noise alone is enough to discourage some purse snatchers. He scoots within inches of baby strollers and fruit stands.

At a corner, he stops to talk to one of his street sources.

``Quiet?″ the officer asks.

``So far,″ the man answered.

``Any tourists?″

The man points up the road. The officer followed.

It’s still unclear whether the extra measures have significantly cut street crime _ the city is still compiling statistics. Solimeni, the Falchi chief, noted: ``You need to go deeper than just more police patrols to stop it.″

In Bari on Monday, lawmakers from the region discussed proposals to fight what they call ``micro-crime.″ The suggestions included investigations of possible organized crime links to mostly teen-age thieves.

They also worried the increased attempts to protect tourists could actually drive visitors away by drawing attention to the problem.

``Street crime occurs all over the world,″ said Alis Maccarini, president of Italy’s association of travel agents and tour operators. ``We don’t want to give the idea that it’s our problem alone.″

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