Coronavirus crisis gives fake cops an opening to exploit

In Lodi, California, a man wearing a “tactical-type vest” stopped a man in a park and told him he was violating curfew and needed to hand over $1,000 or go to jail.

In Erie, Colorado, a man with flashing lights in his car pulled over a woman driving to work and told her she was violating a stay-at-home order. He followed her back to her house and then drove off.

In Jackson County, Georgia, a man with a blue light on his dashboard who was sporting a pin-on badge pulled over the driver of a dump truck, identified himself as a deputy sheriff and told the driver to get off the road because he was a non-essential employee.

Across the country, police impersonators are exploiting the restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic to conduct illegal traffic stops. Some have harassed women, and others have tried to steal money or personal information, according to law enforcement officials.

“They’re wannabe police officers, and the coronavirus is making it easier for them to do it,” said Janis Mangum, the sheriff in Jackson County. “They’re up to no good, and it bothers me a lot.”

In many cases, the perpetrators are preying on the vulnerability and the fear people feel as the virus continues to spread rapidly, said Marcus Felson, a professor of criminal justice at Texas State University.

“I argue strongly for opportunity being the driving force in crime, and this is a crime of opportunity,” Felson said.

Academic research has also indicated that the increasing regulation of civilian life and greater police powers — like those enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — make it easier for police impersonators to operate.

“The more we regulate, the more opportunity it opens for people who want to capitalize on it for their own selfish purposes,” said Robert Gellately, a historian at Florida State University who has written about police impersonators in Nazi Germany. “It’s disgusting.”

In some cases where drivers were allowed to leave after being stopped briefly, there appears to have been no clear motive other than a desire to wield the power of the badge for personal satisfaction, police said.

In Jackson County, for example, the man who identified himself as a deputy sheriff let the driver of the dump truck go without asking for his ID or demanding any money, Mangum said.

She said police were investigating whether the bogus traffic stop might be linked to at least two similar incidents of police impersonation in Gainesville, Georgia, and Dawson County, Georgia.

A 2012 study of 56 incidents of police impersonation found that perpetrators fell into three general categories: Many were “common crooks” looking for a quick shakedown; a few were “cop wannabes” attracted to the authority and ego of policing; and several were driven by “uncommon compulsions” — impersonating officers to engage in sexual misconduct.

Callie Rennison, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver, who helped to conduct the study, said impersonating a police officer was easy because it required little more than a few basic tools of law enforcement, like a flashing blue light or a Ford Crown Victoria.

“It all came down to power and control — having those symbols and people obeying it,” she said. “It’s terrible for legitimate police officers because it undermines their authority.”

Police recommend that drivers call 911 if they fear they’ve been stopped by a bogus law enforcement officer because dispatchers can determine if the stop is legitimate. They also recommend stopping in a well-lit, public area and turning on the hazard lights to draw the attention of passing motorists. Drivers can also ask to see a badge or an identification card.

Officer Hettie Stillman, a spokeswoman for the Lodi Police Department in California’s Central Valley, said the victim who was approached in a park refused to pay the police impersonator $1,000. The victim was Hispanic, she said, which made her concerned that the city’s large Pakistani and Latino populations could be targeted by ersatz officers claiming to enforce coronavirus restrictions.

“Anybody and anyone that would be vulnerable in these times can be taken advantage of, especially if their country of origin doesn’t have a strong relationship with law enforcement,” Stillman said.

Several of the recent incidents took place in Colorado, and police there said it was too early to determine whether they might be linked.

Around midnight March 25 in Aurora, Colorado, a woman was pulled over by a Ford Crown Victoria with red and blue lights. Police said the driver, a young man wearing a dark blue uniform, walked up to the woman’s car and “asked why she was out during the stay-at-home order due to COVID-19,” the disease caused by the coronavirus. She noticed he didn’t have a badge and, after a brief conversation, the man told her she could leave.

A day later in Fort Collins, Colorado, a woman was pulled over by a man wearing a blue police uniform and driving a pickup truck with red and blue lights. He told the woman he was performing a “stay-home compliance check” and ordered her to hand over her driver’s license, proof of insurance and registration, which he took back to his truck and then returned to her several minutes later, police said.

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The following day in Greeley, Colorado, a police impersonator pulled drivers into an area blocked off by yellow traffic cones. The man, who was wearing a dark uniform with a traffic vest, had a baton and pepper spray and was asking for driver’s licenses, insurance and registration. He demanded that one driver explain why he was “violating the COVID-19 law,” according to police.

John Feyen, the assistant chief in Fort Collins, said that while officers there were still enforcing traffic laws, they were not stopping cars solely for restrictions related to the coronavirus.

“Unfortunately, criminals around the country are using COVID-19 concerns to their advantage in many ways,” he said. “We will hold these people accountable for their illegal activities and encourage our community members to report any suspicious behaviours.”

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