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Culture : Personal Safety in Italy: Figures Often Betray Fact : * Interpol says that Rome is safer than many European cities. But Italians know crime is a matter of time and place.


ROME — Americans bring their preconceptions to Rome, just as Italians take theirs to Los Angeles. They tour historic and chaotic streets with belly-bags closely held. Watch out for pickpockets on the No. 64 bus to the Vatican, keep away from Gypsy ragamuffins, walk on eggs at the big Termini train station. If the muggers don't get you, the Mafia will.

If caution is always prudent, so it is to separate myth from reality.

Rome and other big Italian cities have crooks aplenty, and crime is accelerating there just like nearly everywhere else. Still, Romans and their visitors are a lot safer than the average New Yorker or residents of many other West European capitals.

That is the word from Interpol, the Paris-based international police agency. Overall, Italy is safer than France or Germany, according to newly released Interpol statistics for 1989 which Italian newspapers gave a gleeful splash.

And your chances of getting murdered are far less in Rome than in London, Paris, Copenhagen or Vienna. To say nothing of New York, where there were more homicides in 1989 (1,905) than in the whole of Italy (1,432).

Overall, the figures say, Italy was not as safe as Spain but trailed then-West Germany and France in the danger league, despite a 22% increase between 1989 and 1990 in the number of crimes reported.

"Our figures show that public safety in Italy is in line with other West European countries," said Interior Ministry undersecretary Giancarlo Ruffino. "And, we think, the numbers will remain constant through 1991. But the problem with the biggest social impact is the prevention and the fight against the spread of drugs."

What the global Interpol figures don't show, but every Italian knows, is that how safe you are in Italy depends greatly on where you are and how vulnerable you are to pressures from organized crime.

"The most dangerous place in Rome, the Termini station, is safer than the safest place in Naples," said one senior commander of the paramilitary Carabineri national police.

But in the Italian south--where organized criminal families are deep-rooted not only in Sicily but also in the Naples region of Campania and neighboring Calabria and Puglia--the Carabineri count an average of four murders and five bombings a day. The rest of the country, where two-thirds of the 58 million Italians live, averages one murder and two bombings a day.

Extortion against businessmen and shop owners, an old stand-by of the criminal families in the south, is spreading trendily throughout the country, but so is resistance to it. One Sicilian factory owner who publicly denounced extortion and refused to pay it was promptly murdered last summer--to national outrage.

Since then, many other Italians have denounced extortionists, with some success. Fifteen were sentenced to jail in Sicily late last month amid a mounting national campaign against them. Around the country, there are now toll-free phone numbers to which extortionists may be reported.

Following the lead of colleagues in Naples, shop owners in the swankiest part of central Rome shut down one recent afternoon to protest what they called growing extortion demands against them.

The Lombard region around Milan, which is more northern European than Mediterranean in wealth and attitudes, has been infiltrated lately by organized crime. In June, a third of the people quizzed by one pollster in Lombardy listed uprooting the Mafia, stopping extortion and halting the drug trade as the region's main problems. By October, the figure had grown to 41.8%.

Big-city crime in Italy is currently being fueled by the growing influx of have-not migrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe. One fashionable neighborhood in the shadow of Rome's City Hall is under siege from the petty thievery of scrounging Poles who cluster, jobless and hungry, around a Polish church.

Recognizing that they remain on the losing end of their long war with the Mafia, Italy's three national police forces announced recently that they would pool resources for better coordination against organized crime.

Visitors see little of the sorts of organized crime that bedevil Italians most. They, in contrast, are plagued by disorganized crime. In the tourists' defense, there are now frequent roundups of pickpockets and purse snatchers in central Rome. (The perpetrators are mostly Italians, Slavs, North Africans and Gypsies.)

None of which means that a visit to the Colosseum or the Spanish Steps will always be without mishap.

But Italy remains remarkably nonviolent. Statistically, the chances of being mugged or shot on an evening stroll to the Piazza Navona or the Trevi Fountain are far smaller than on an afternoon walk through most other big cities.

Crime Is Where You Find It

City Total Crimes Per 100,000 inhabitants Copenhagen 101,514 21.6 Paris 298.999 14.6 London 763.380 10.5 Vienna 151.402 10.2 New York 712,419 9.6 Rome 182,975 6.4

And the Murder Capital Is......

City Total Numbers Per 100,000 inhabitants New York 1,905 25.05 Copenhagen 63 13.47 Paris 68 3.34 Vienna 47 3.17 London 178 2.47 Rome 28 0.99

Source: Interpol

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