What is the difference between La Polizia and the Carabinieri?


Carabinieri, Polizia, and Guardia di Finanza

The Canadian RCMP have a very distinctive and recognisable dress uniform – Italians call them the giubbe rosse – the red coats. But you can’t beat the Italians for the diversity, pomp and style of their police uniforms. There are three different policing agencies which you regularly encounter in Trieste- the Polizia Locale, the Carabinieri and La Guardia di Finanza.

There was an exhibit – “Mostra fotografica e uniformologica sul’ Arma dei Carabinieri a Trieste 1918-1970”- which piqued my interest. It told the story of the Carabinieri in Trieste through displays of photographs, uniforms and historical information.

The Carabinieri actually first arrived in Trieste with the Bersaglieri November 3, 1918. With the end of WWI there was a flood of now ex-soldiers, prisoners that were set free and refugees that came into Trieste. Italy annexed Trieste, order had to be restored and the Italian government sent in the Carabinieri.

The Arma dei Carabinieri is both the gendarmerie and the military police of Italy and so they are a common sight. Impromptu roadside checkpoints are frequent and everywhere. In fact we were driving home late one Friday evening after a dinner out with friends when off from the side of the road stepped a Carabiniere waving a small ping-pong like palette and we had to pull over. Obviously on the look-out for people younger than us and possibly in an inebriated state – he took one look inside the car, saw we were a “mature” group of four and just waved us on.   Not 500 metres down the road and around a curve, again the small palette and we were pulled over, this time it was the Polizia. This officer took one look at us and with a somewhat exasperated sigh, quickly sent us on our way!   What is the difference between the role of the local “Polizia” and the Carabinieri I asked?   Basically no difference I am told. They both do much the same policing work. The Polizia however, are only in major centres whereas the Carabinieri are in every community in Italy.

The Arma dei Carabinieri was first a corps of cavalrymen ”armed with a carbine rifle”. It was created in 1814 by King Vittorio Emanuele I of Savoy as a police force for the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. It is older than Italy itself. Today it is a branch of the Italian Armed Forces with a dual role – it is responsible for defending the state and is responsible for public safety.

It seems only natural that the Carabinieri’s uniforms be designed by Italy’s top fashion house: Valentino. I saw this on the internet and asked the Carbiniere who was posted at the Mostra if this was true. He was unsure what to answer and said “well maybe Armani designed the summer uniform”.   It is probably all part of the urban myth surrounding the Carabinieri.

The Carabinieri look outstandingly sharp in their uniforms: red striped trousers, patent leather white belt, silver braid, hats (lucerne). The emblem on their hats is an exploding grenade. They also have splendid ceremonial uniforms with scarlet-lined capes, gloves, swords and tall red plumes on the “lucerna”.

Even the cars look sharp – black with a red stripe down the side. And their fleet of cars is fast – Alfa Romeo, Subaru and even a Lamborghini which has a small fridge on board for transporting donor organs.

The Carabinieri are the brunt of many politically incorrect jokes. I don’t know how many times I have heard these:

Why do Carabinieri always travel in two’s?

One reads and the other writes.

Why is there a red stripe on the pants of the Carabinieri uniform?

So the Carabiniere knows where the leg goes.

Why are there two rooftop lights on a Carabiniere car?

So that the two officers don’t fight over who will turn on the flashing lights.


Even though they have been the traditional butt of humor that implies a “stereotypical incompetence and inability to think beyond blind obedience,” the Carabinieri are now widely considered as one of country’s most trusted and competent institutions.

The Local Polizia uniforms are by contrast a bit dated looking. Their cars are a light blue and white in color and a bit nondescript. This of course does not take away at all from the importance of the policing work that they do.

Last, but by no means, least, is the Finance Police – “La Guardia di Finanza,” about which there is no joking around. Ominously referred to as “La Finanza;” it is responsible for policing tax evasion, smuggling, drug trafficking, illegal immigration and terrorist financing: duties that in Canada, would be overseen by Revenue Canada, CSIS , RCMP, Canada Border Services.

Officers wear smart grey/green uniforms with an insignia of yellow flames on the shoulders (hence their nickname of fiamme gialle). They also drive very fast cars and boats.

This “roving tax squad” makes surprise visits to all places of business, checking that clients have a receipt for their purchases and that the amount of money in the till matches the amount recorded on the cash register “tape”.

It is not just the merchant who carries the responsibility of issuing the receipt. In Italy you, the consumer, are required by law to possess a receipt for all goods purchased, the infamous “lo scontrino”.

Some photos – Che Bella Figura!



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