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With no qualms on profiling, detectives target Gypsy crime

Critics of police say tactics play on stereotypes

VALLEY FORGE, Pa. -- Fortified by muffins and coffee, the detectives gathered under the chandeliers in the hotel's Grand Ballroom.

San Francisco Police Inspector Greg Ovanessian prepared to start his presentation. ''Before I begin," he said, ''not all Gypsies or Rom are criminals."

Someone in the back yelled in disbelief. After the laughs died down, Ovanessian continued.

''When speaking about crimes committed by the Gypsy or the Rom, of course I'm only referring to the criminal element within that community."

Again, someone yelled in disbelief.

Under drizzly skies just across from Valley Forge National Historical Park outside of Philadelphia, the Gypsy crime detectives were in full war-room mode.

They had gathered at the Valley Forge Radisson for the 21st annual conference of the National Association of Bunco Investigators. While bunco generically means theft by confidence games, no one here was kidding themselves that they were on a generic mission. Their main target was the thefts, swindles, and frauds perpetrated by Gypsies, also known as Rom or Roma.

From places such as Wichita, Kan.; Skokie, Ill.; San Francisco; Abbington Township, Pa.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and New York, the detectives took in topics such as ''Introduction to Rom Investigations," ''European Burglary Suspects," and ''Home Repair and Impostor Burglary Suspects."

In his presentation, Detective Gary Nolte of Skokie showed a painting of wagons passing through a bucolic countryside. ''Most of America thinks this is what a Gypsy is, I kid you not," Nolte said. Americans ''think it's fun. They think it's a joke. Tambourine-thumping, banjo-playing buffoons.

''That's what [Gypsies] want us to think. But they're not."

How many crimes are involved? It's impossible to say, according to investigators. Most of the crimes are not reported, and the number of Gypsies in the United States is unknown.

Gypsies have long attracted the interest of a specialized gumshoe.

These detectives study suspects' clans and often put together family trees. They contact community patriarchs, known as ''rombaros" -- ''big men" -- who sometimes turn suspects in, then bail them out. Some detectives go to Gypsy weddings and funerals to shoot photos, take down license plates, and hunt for suspects.

Of course, as an investigative niche, the targeting of Gypsy crimes isn't politically correct. By definition, Gypsy crime detectives engage in profiling. What else, the detectives ask, are they to do?

Critics say these investigators engage in tactics that should have been cast aside decades ago.

''If it were Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Chinese-Americans, there would be immediate backlash at all levels," said Ian Hancock, a University of Texas linguistics professor and ethnic Roma. ''There's nothing about crimes committed by Romani-Americans that make them different from crimes committed by anybody else."

Hancock and others said the officers' attitudes are especially egregious because of the long history of persecution of Gypsies, a highly insular people who migrated from India and eventually became the largest minority in Europe. An estimated half-million of them were killed during the Holocaust.

The people known as Gypsies have preserved traditions that emphasize separation from mainstream societies, which they consider to be corrupting. Many do not send their children to school or work alongside non-Gypsies.

''Who else can police kick that don't kick back?" asked Jimmy Marks, the son of a prominent Spokane, Wash., ''rombaro" whose property was raided by police in 1986. Eleven years later, the city paid more than $1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family.

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