Police impersonators not only endanger civilians—sometimes gravely—but they also erode the often hard-earned trust in law enforcement you work diligently to establish and maintain. In short, fake cops diminish real cops’ ability to protect and serve.
With this crime seemingly on the rise, it’s crucial to educate your community on the key police impersonation indicators, both for the purpose of self-protection and to avoid undue anxiety and resistance should there be need for contact with legitimate officers.
Below, Street Survival Seminar Instructor Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith discusses what civilians can do to protect themselves, while not obstructing your job. Sharing these tips in your community will help keep citizens safe while making your job ultimately easier.
Elizabeth Gottlieb, wife of slain Long Island bank manager James Gottlieb, talks to reporters at Hempstead District Court in Hempstead, N.Y. James Gottlieb was fatally shot by a suspect posing as an undercover police officer. (AP Photo/Jack Healy) Read Story
If this is a traffic stop situation:
• Make sure it is a marked unit with a realistic looking light bar or built-in lights (not a temporary "Kojak light"). Make sure they are the appropriate color for your jurisdiction. If it's NOT a marked unit, the take-down lights should be built-in and somewhat uniform front and back.
• Try to stop in a well-lit area. Don't pull into a remote parking lot or somewhere secluded.
• If possible, turn on your flashers but don't turn off your car.
• DO NOT get out of the vehicle to meet the approaching officer (real cops don't like that anyway).
• Lock your door.
• Look for a uniform, raid jacket, body armor, radio, flashlight (at night). Watch their demeanor, do they seem more nervous than you? Are they watching you or are they distracted (perhaps looking to see if the "real" cops are going to drive by)?
• Plainclothes officers rarely make traffic stops without numerous identifying pieces of clothing and equipment.
• Pay attention to what they ask. They should first ask for driver's license, proof of insurance, etc. MOST will tell you the violation or reason for the stop right away.
• If they immediately tell you to get out of the car without any preliminary questions (and you've not committed a felony), be suspicious. Explain to the "officer" that you are unsure about the situation and you'd like a minute to verify his/her identity. KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE THE OFFICER CAN SEE THEM, be polite as you question them, MAKE NO SUDDEN OR SUSPICIOUS MOVEMENTS. Watch their reaction to you.
• Ask them where they work and would they mind if you called their dispatch (not their boss or their office) center to confirm their identity.
• TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. If they don't seem to be real cops, they probably aren’t. Keep your cell phone handy.
If they come to your home or business:
• NEVER let them in if you are not 100% sure of their identity.
• Ask to see not just a badge, but a photo ID card and a commission card (NEVER take a business card as ID). Real cops will not mind this.
• Ask them what they need to see you about.
• Ask them if you can call their dispatch center or headquarters to confirm before you let them in.
• BE POLITE but firm; if you suspect something is not right, call 911 immediately.
• Generally, real cops either wear a full uniform or none at all, be wary of people in "partial" uniform (i.e.: a uniform shirt with jeans, or a uniform shirt with a badge but no patches or nametag). If they are in uniform, look for long hair in men, excessive facial hair, piercings, etc...this is usually not allowed.
• If they are unprofessional or overly dramatic or excitable, they may not legitimate.
• If they threaten you ("let us in or we're kicking down the door!") and you have not committed a forcible felony, lock the door and call 911 immediately.
Police impersonations in the news
In recent months, there have been a rash of police impersonations nationwide, including two big stories out of Denver and Los Angeles this week. Criminals are pulling people over in unmarked cars, making fake federal IDs – and in a particularly disturbing case, a rapist in New York posed as an officer to gain victims' trust before assaulting them.
Help sought to nab cop impersonators in W.Va.: More tips for identifying a police impersonator 9.05.07
Cop impersonator finds there's nothing like the real thing 3.9.07
Fending Off Fake Cops: The 2005 death of James Gottlieb: 2.2.07
Calif. detective's lost police badge turns up on arrested man's belt 2.2.07
Neb. officer catches police imposter making phony traffic stop 1.10.07
Mass. fake deputy to get real time 11.16.06
Prostitute tries to cuff undercover john 9.25.06
Beware 'FBI' E-mail Virus 2.22.05