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Is the cop for real?

Gary T. Marx is professor emeritus of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( and author of "Undercover: Police Surveillance in America."

January 16, 2005

In our fantasy play my 4-year-old grandson often asks me, "Are you for real?" His inquiry is more profound than he perhaps realizes. As daily events remind us, his question touches many facets of contemporary American society in which often, as Gilbert and Sullivan wrote, "things are seldom what they seem."

Consider, for example, how prudent it is to be initially skeptical, or at least to question, news media accounts, drug company claims, age and gender appearances, pledges of fidelity and marital status, proof of professional license and expertise (whether involving medicine or home remodels), a low odometer reading on an older used car, or the identity of an Internet communicator or credit card user.

The realness of even a police officer was an issue in the murder of James Gottlieb, a Long Island banker, who was gunned down recently during a struggle after being pulled over in his car and stopped by a police impersonator.

That familiar sinking feeling when the vehicle behind yours suddenly turns on its siren and you see its flashing lights in your rear-view mirror is an experience known to most of us. It is a moment fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty about what we may have done and what the officer knows, or can legally or illegally discover. We worry about whether we will be respectfully treated with due process, and without errors or false accusations.

Gottlieb's murder reminds us that an additional concern might be whether the officer is who he or she claims to be. Ironically, the increased use of undercover policing in the United States since the death of J. Edgar Hoover has likely contributed to the spread of impersonation. Real stings and mass media dramas involving the undercover theme have accustomed citizens and perpetrators alike to the presence of non-uniformed police.

This leads to a reverse version of the "who are you really?" question. Real police (undercover, plainclothes or off-duty) are occasionally perceived to be imposters. In New York and elsewhere a number of police officers (disproportionately members of minority groups) out of uniform have been killed by fellow officers who perceived them as criminals.

The causes and consequences of the multiple forms of police impersonation - from serious crimes such as the Brinks Robbery and Carl Chessman (the infamous California red-light bandit of the 1950s) to crimes against drug dealers by other dealers, to garden variety teenage pranksters and police aficionados playing as authorities - vary significantly. Yet all represent a tiny strand in a much broader tapestry.

Police impersonation, like many other forms of deception is encouraged by the characteristics of contemporary American life - a mass society made up mostly of strangers where in place of reputation, we must rely on signs (uniforms, badges, identification cards, licenses easily obtained by almost anyone on the Internet or through catalogs) to verify someone's authenticity. We know that security screens such as passwords and keys can sometimes be hacked. It is also a society that encourages role-playing, make-overs and becoming who you want to be.

The encounter with a police officer on the street occurs against the same backdrop of the need for verification as an appointment with a doctor or a roof repairman. But unlike in those situations, we don't have the luxury of time to ask a friend's recommendation, or to check with the Better Business Bureau or a state agency to see if the person is appropriately licensed and/or bonded. Some social situations will always be messier than others with respect to the documentation of identity. Law enforcement is one of them.

Some small steps might lessen impersonation problems. Police advise those pulled over who are in doubt to use a cell phone to call 911 for verification of an officer's identity or request a uniformed officer, or to drive slowly with blinkers on to a well-lit public area or police station. Policies requiring harder-to-replicate lights in the front grill of police cars and that a uniformed officer always be present or summoned when a stop occurs also seem wise.

However, under varying circumstances, police will always need either to reveal or conceal their identification. The negotiation of this tension in a democratic society is and ought to be eternally problematic.

4,210 Posts
Being from the NY-NJ-CT tri-state area that murder was a big thing around here. The news reporters gave people some ideas (which were listed above) on how to protect yourself from officers who are not officers.

One of the suggestions they gave, that was not mentioned in the above article, was to "put your arm out the window and wave to let the officer know you are going to pull over".

With that being said I have a question for officers: If a car you were pulling over "waved" at you, would you be frustrated or relieved that they were "doing what they were taught" per the news media?

Good article Gil.

12 Posts
It is imperative not only that reports of encounters with police impersonators are quickly and fully investigated, but also that false reporters are prosecuted and the information is brought to the attention of the media.

Case in point: In the town of Charlton last year, a woman reported being stopped at 3am by a middle-aged man in an unmarked Ford Crown Vic with a blue light. She stated that he got her out of the vehicle, searched her car, groped her (sexual assault) and then let her go.

Some weeks later, a Charlton police detective was contacted and he stated that she had finally confessed that she had made it all up. Apparently, she is in an abusive relationship...was out late one night...and feared being beat up by her boyfriend for getting home so late. She fabricated the story.

Grim reaper
1,361 Posts
It is imperative not only that reports of encounters with police impersonators are quickly and fully investigated, but also that false reporters are prosecuted and the information is brought to the attention of the media. [/quote]

I couldn't agree with that statement more. I have two cases pending currently and one under investigation right now. For anyone who thinks making an issue of investigating and prosecuting misuse of blue lights, state seals, police uniforms, badges, hats, etc as being trivial, think again. Remember, the Oklahoma city bomber was stopped for a plate violation.

Its my family or yours who might become the next victim........
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