May 10, 2017

Police Impersonations Aren’t Frequent, but They’re Still Troubling to Authorities

Reporting Texas

HAYS  COUNTY — Fake cops have been a fixture of American life for years, and this spring’s rash of police impersonations in Hays County fits a familiar pattern: They pop up and then fade.

Over a 12-day period in March, at least one person driving a pickup truck equipped with red-and-blue flashing lights pulled over three divers east of Buda, located south of Austin. One driver said the impersonator was a man dressed in all black, while another said he wore shorts and a T-shirt, according to press releases from the Hays County Sheriff’s Office. All three drove away.

“We have not had a single call since the third [incident],” Lt. Dennis Gutierrez said in a telephone interview. “The news exposure may have scared him off.”

Gutierrez says that based on the similar descriptions, officers think the same person committed all three crimes. Police impersonation is a third-degree felony in Texas, punishable by up to 10 years in state prison.

All three incidents happened in the same rural, poorly lit area east of Interstate 35.

“If someone’s going to do something bad, that’s the perfect road to do it on,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez says he’s heard of similar incidents elsewhere in Texas, but they have been rare.

There are no hard data on police impersonations in Texas or nationwide, and little research. A 2012 study by two public affairs professors at the University of Colorado Denver found that pulling people over on the road is the most frequent way impersonators strike, at 45 percent. Another third of impersonations happen in public spaces like hotels, bus terminals and schools. Thirteen percent involve “knock and talk” incidents at personal residences.

Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said by email that DPS doesn’t track impersonations. Kevin Lawrence, executive director at the Texas Municipal Police Association, said in a telephone interview that he knows of no centralized database that tracks fake cops.

Lawrence says anecdotal evidence suggests no clear trend in impersonations in Texas, but the ones that occur still trouble him.

“This may sound like a very bizarre analogy, but to me, it’s kind of like serial murderers,” he said. “There have been less than 50 serial murderers in this country, but which one can we point to and say ‘that wasn’t serious?’”

Maj. Jimmy Vaughan of the Dallas Police Department said in a telephone interview that the most common incidents in his area involve imitating SWAT teams. Half a dozen times in the past six months, he said, people pretending to be police have dressed in black and broken into houses or apartments.

“These impersonators kick in house or apartment doors and yell ‘SWAT’ or ‘police’ and take people’s belongings,” Vaughan said.

The Colorado study didn’t address SWAT police impersonations, nor did it have data on SWAT impersonation incidents, so the prevalence is unclear.

The Colorado study did find that most police impersonations don’t involve weapons, and that impersonators are most frequently white males, half of them under the age of 30.

Back in Hays County, police haven’t identified the impersonator who struck in March.

“We have no clue if he’s screwing around, pranking, or something worse like a carjacking,” Gutierrez said. “It could be that extreme or as insignificant as someone trying to pull a prank, which we don’t think is funny at all.”