Police impersonators: How do we take back the uniform?

In addressing the growing problem of criminals impersonating law enforcement, the starting point must be to review the availability of anyone purchasing various law enforcement items

Presently, anyone with relatively a small amount of money to invest can outfit themselves to give the appearance that they are a sworn officer. Online shopping enables someone — anyone, really — to purchase and have shipped to them everything they need. They don’t even need to do it from inside their home — they can log on at an “Internet café” and have the stuff sent to a sizable PO Box at one of those mailbox stores. Sure, the mailbox stores say that they require a home address to even get a box, but we all know that security measure has been overlooked by store clerks and/or defeated by motivated customers.

A recent article by a local newspaper in Fort Lauderdale (Fla.), highlighted exactly what one should have to appear to be a legitimate officer. This was not responsible journalism. While many police supply companies require proper identification or official department letters, many, many other companies do not. It is fast and easy to purchase all the items to personally look the part. I remember once being called to a scene because the complainant believed that the US Marshalls were at her house and she wanted the local police to respond and stand by. She had little trust except for the officers she saw patrolling her neighborhood.

Upon arrival, and after inspecting their badges, it was clear this was a bail bond service, not law enforcement. But to the caller, it was someone in a tactical uniform with an official looking badge. While they did not represent themselves as law enforcement, they were not going to correct the caller’s misperception and instead, use it to their advantage. This was totally legal.

What Looks Out Of Place Probably IS
Undercover vehicles have hidden lights and criminals are adding — for relatively little additional expense — such lights so their car is outfitted to appear to be an unmarked law enforcement vehicle. Briefly activating these lights limit the chances of getting caught.

To the general public, all uniforms are the same, like the example mentioned above. To them, every department has as their uniform the exact same uniform as every other department. They confuse sworn law enforcement with their marked units to that of security companies. To the public, a marked unit is a marked unit and they don’t know the difference between the two.

What is immediately needed is to bring a bit of uniqueness to the tactical uniform. A black T-shirt with the word ‘POLICE’ or ‘SHERIFF’ must become a thing of the past. It should be required that the T-shirts being worn have department patches that cannot be copied easily. This will become a budget item, but in my opinion, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Taking Steps to End This Threat
Once law enforcement is onboard with the changes needed to make it difficult to copy the uniform, much like the credit card companies had to adapt to the 21st century, the next step is for the agencies to do a public awareness campaign. All agencies have feelers out in their respective communities. It is time to use them and get the word out. Having all the eyes and ears of the neighborhoods would greatly enhance the efforts to stop police impersonators. The best method to get a message across is to flood the media. Commercials, news article, individual department’s web sites, talk shows, community events, at every turn, we must be putting this problem in the public’s face. Of course the down side is that the number of calls to verify plainclothes and undercover officers will increase

Times have changed. Times have gotten worse. Years ago, law enforcement officers either have worn a unique uniform or a suit or tie. Today with all the specialized units, the manner of dress is extremely varied. What’s worse, tactical “uniforms” are available to practically everyone. The only way to confront and stop this problem is to face it head on. Become aggressive and take the fight to the criminals. Make it extremely difficult to mirror the tactical uniform and be aggressive in watching for this type of crime. Reality is that businesses are not going to do anything to hurt profits and law enforcement will just have to work around this fact.

Regulating these businesses is not the answer for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that individual compliance of certain companies will simply not happen — it cuts into profits and for government to enact laws, it would be impossible to enforce those laws. The burden must be placed on the departments to correct the problem.

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