Bottomfeeders of the criminal hierarchy

High and Dry on the Streets of Elsewhere
Chapter One, part-c, Travel Advisory

Bob and I hit the ground and I squinted at the gang.

“Luciano!” I said to one of the culprits as the tram trundled off. I recognized him as a pickpocket we’d interviewed four years ago.

“No, no Luciano,” he said, shaking his head. He backed away.

“Si, Luciano Barattolo, I remember you.” Luciano bent and fiddled with a window squeegee in a bucket of water abandoned on the median strip. He removed the dripping squeegee and touched it to the toe of each of his shoes. I got ready for a blast of filthy water; I was sure he was going to fling it at us.

Head still bent, he peeked up at me through the corner of his eye, dropped the squeegee, and bolted.

After more than a decade prowling city streets around the world, we’d become accustomed to finding known criminals freely plying their trade right out in the open. Here was Luciano, still out lifting wallets on trams despite police and public awareness of him. You’d think he’d be put away by now.

It’s a contentious political issue: law enforcement budget versus taxes, penal code versus perpetrator’s rights, unemployment, immigration. Same story in most of the world’s major cities and, therefore, street thieves abound, free to prey on the weakest, richest resource: the tourist. From a busy prosecutor’s perspective, or an overworked judge’s, or even an underpaid beat cop’s, pickpocketing is a pretty insignificant issue. Real bad guys are on the loose: murderers, kidnappers, rapists, drug-pushers. How much of a police force should be diverted to snag the bottomfeeders of the criminal hierarchy?

Most countries blame illegal immigrants from poorer nations nearby. “We can’t get rid of them,” said Inspector D’Amore Vincenzo, a frustrated policeman in Milan, Italy. “When they’re caught without work cards, we give them 15 days to leave the country. Then they are released and what happens? They just don’t leave! And if they have no papers, no passports, the countries they come from will not accept the repatriation of these people.”

The problem may seem small. One man loses his wallet, his money, his driver’s license, his credit cards. So what? But it’s not one man. In Westminster–that’s one small district of London–768 cases of pickpocketing were recorded in June 2002. That’s just June. Just one small section of the city of London. And only the reported incidents. How many victims did not file a report? And by the way, the figure doesn’t include the 142 bag snatches recorded in the same district in the same period.

Luciano paused a couple blocks away, having finally dredged up the memory of us from four years ago. He was 49 now, but still looked 30. He raised his children on a career of pickpocketing, and now was spoiling five grandchildren. Over lunch, he told us how he and his partners used legal loopholes to stay in the game.

“If the police catch us with a tool, they are angry and beat us up. If we don’t have a tool and they see us they just say …˜leave, get out of here.'”

“What’s a tool?”

“A razor blade, for example. Or some use long tweezers to slip into a back pocket.” Luciano’s eyes scanned the sidewalk café for listening ears. “A scissors is a good tool,” he whispered. “A scissors is okay to carry. With scissors I can cut a pocket and let the wallet fall into my hand.”

Luciano makes it sound easy. He and his ilk hit on moving targets in tight spaces, then fade away into churning crowds. It’s a universal style. Police throw up their hands. “We must see the hand in the pocket!” they cry. “We have only six in our squad for all the city.” “Our officers don’t know what to look for.” “It’s impossible!”

The pickpockets aren’t about to stop.

“I started doing it to eat, to get food, because there were no jobs. Now it’s all I know,” Luciano told us. Others steal to support drug problems, or have no legal status to work, or simply believe in taking what they want.
©copyright 2000-2008. All rights reserved. Bambi Vincent

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  • Being in the good guy profession, I so understand the way the courts work (or don’t) and I understand that people think some (or all) of these suspects can be rehabilitated (my opinion: they can’t, people have tried and they have failed). As an example, one suspect was recently convicted and given the status of small habitual (referred to on the street as the small bitch) with a sentence of 8-14 years before eligibility of parole could be granted and he was recently caught from inside the prison committing identity theft and credit card fraud — so if we can’t stop people from inside prison, what’s the hope?
    Most cops will tell you that where just about any of the financial/property crimes are concerned, whether it’s robbery, forgery, auto theft, or burglary, if a very small percentage of people (read criminals for that word) could be permanently dissuaded from plying their trade, crime would fall precipitously in any given area. In Vegas (population 2 million and surface area approximately 20X20 miles), that number for those committing forgery crimes might be as small as a hundred people. By incarcerating this number of criminals the city’s crime might drop us from 1st or 2nd in the nation and 4th in the world to something way up the scale. Quality of life, which would include sense of security, would increase for the average Joe.
    The trade-off? 100 suspects times $38,000 in living expenses per year in prison times the number of years sentenced for each those suspects. This in an economy that is purported to be 898 million dollars in the hole. That deficit might require the release of 7000 non violent offenders (read burglars, car thieves, and forgers) from Nevada prisons.

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