A 19-year old college girl named Lauren is the heroine of a sensational international urban legend. Her supporting cast includes a rapist posting as a police officer in an unmarked police car, real police officers in marked cruisers, and a police dispatcher. The location? An unlit road on the outskirts of town -- and that town could be anywhere, as this urban legend has had its location changed as it’s circled the globe via e-mail, from Virginia to Australia to Canada to Britain. (For more on this e-mail urban legend, visit Snopes.com.)
The story goes like this: Lauren is pulled over by an unmarked police car but she is suspicious and uses a special phone number to contact the local police to confirm that she is being pulled over by a genuine cop. The surprised dispatcher tells her to keep driving because the car behind her is not a real police car. Within minutes, real officers intercept the imposter who, when arrested, turns out to be a rapist.
Dramatic? Yes. True? Not exactly. While some urban legends are harmless, this tale adds unnecessary fear to the lives of solo drivers. Furthermore, it encourages readers to believe three harmful falsehoods. The first is that there is an epidemic of criminals posing as police officers. The second is that officers in unmarked cruisers can't be trusted. The third is that there are unpublished, secret phone numbers that connect cell phone users to local police agencies.Do Crooks Really Impersonate Police?
While there are certainly cases of people posing as police officers, when we asked some real police officers about this, they said that the probability of being pulled over by an imposter is remote.
Officer Clarence Williams of the Los Angeles Police Department said, "We have had complaints of officer impersonations during my years on the force. Normally the criminal pulls over a citizen, quickly flashes a badge, and then commits some type of robbery. They steal the citizen's wallet or purse."
Working in a suburb on the border of Detroit, Michigan, Officer Frank Zielinski of Grosse Pointe Farms said, "The crime of impersonating an officer is rare. What we usually see is that when it happens in the suburbs, it tends to be somebody on a power trip. They might pull somebody over, act like a police officer, give the citizen a warning, and then send them on their way. In urban areas, the motivation is usually theft or potentially a car-jacking."What If You Are Stopped By An Unmarked Police Car?
Many states and municipalities commonly use unmarked police cars for conducting traffic stops. Unmarked cars are valued because they blend in better with other traffic, helping the police nab speeders and other traffic law violators.
AOL Autos has covered the deployment of many non-standard cruisers, so you can be up to date on what most "plain brown wrapper" enforcement vehicles look like. While modern unmarked police cars can easily hide in traffic, with lights blazing it's hard to mistake a stealth cruiser for anything other than cop car on official business. Lights on law-enforcement vehicles are white, red and blue.
But what if you're pulled over by an unmarked vehicle that doesn't have red and blue lights? Maybe the driver is not in uniform? If you suspect that you're being pulled over by an imposter, follow these tips and the traffic stop will go more smoothly and be less tense for you and the officer:
1. As soon as you realized that you're being pulled over, activate your vehicle's four-way hazard lights. This tells the officer that you are aware that they are there and that you are complying with his or her request to pull over. Do not drive erratically, speed up, or attempt to elude the officer.
2. Drive safely to the nearest public area or police station. These are locations where police impersonators are less likely to engage victims. If it is nighttime, make sure the area is well lit.
3. If you have a cell phone, dial 911 and ask the dispatcher to verify that an officer attempting to pull you over. If the 911 operator verifies your vehicle description and your location, stop immediately for the officer.
4.If the unmarked cruiser is operated by a plainclothes officer, you may request that a uniformed officer respond to the scene. Remember to be polite and non-threatening.
For more tips on what to do during a traffic stop, AOL correspondent Kevin Ransom recently interviewed an experienced officer.
It pays to know your local laws and policies regarding unmarked police vehicles. For example, in Los Angeles, the LAPD's official policy is that unmarked vehicles may not perform a traffic stop. If an officer in an unmarked vehicle wishes to pull over a citizen, they must radio for a "black and white" with a uniformed officer to perform this task.
The LAPD's Officer Williams said, "A marked cruiser makes it obvious to the citizen that they are being pulled over by an official police vehicle. They can't then use the excuse, 'I didn't know' or 'I was afraid to stop.'"
Lauren's urban legend claims the young woman dials 112, #667, or #77. These numbers are claimed to be unadvertised, direct-dial speed dials that automatically connect a caller to the nearest police dispatch operator.
None of these numbers work nationwide. However, some states do have unique, specific phone numbers that motorists can use to contact law enforcement. A list can be found here.
Generally, police agencies recommend drivers just dial 911 to confirm that they are being pulled over by legitimate officer.Modern Unmarked Traffic-Enforcement Cars
Officer Zielinski showed us an unconventional patrol car that Grosse Pointe Farms recently put into service. The Mustang GT is a 2009 model with a 4.6-liter V-8. The Mustang's gray paint, aluminum wheels, black racing stripes and hood scoop make the car look totally civilian, until its special lighting package fires up.
High-intensity LED lamps are mounted behind the windshield, in the grille, and on the exterior mirrors. Additional LEDs are mounted in the rear window and by the rear taillights to alert traffic approaching from the rear. The colors are brilliant blue, red and white.
Unlike the four-way flashers that are standard on civilian vehicles, the lights on police vehicle flash alternately between the left and right sides. Civilian hazard flashers blink in parallel, with the left- and right-side lamps flashing together. Additionally, the lights on modern covert police vehicles are much brighter than standard automotive lamps.Officer Zielinski is one of the officers assigned to the Mustang GT. "We wanted to make our patrol car identifiable from up close. Because of that, we added the 'police' ID to the hood scoop so that people can easily read the word when we pull them over." How courteous.