DALLAS -- Even the flashing lights are suspect.
Authorities say they are running into more incidents in which law enforcement impostors -- often driving what look like unmarked cars, complete with flashing police-style lights -- are robbing, raping or even murdering motorists they trick into stopping.
Two off-duty Dallas police officers recently reported incidents in which people posing as officers tried to get them to pull over. Both suspected police impostors -- one a licensed security guard, the other a former Cockrell Hill fire chief -- face felony charges of impersonating a public servant.
Wendy Cohen's daughter was raped and murdered by a police impostor in Fort Collins, Colo., in 2003. She started a foundation that seeks stricter penalties for police impersonators and the use of emergency lights.
"We're conditioned to pull over. We don't expect it to be a bad guy," she said.
It can be difficult to be sure whether a traffic stop is being made by a fake cop or the real thing. Even different law enforcement agencies have different ideas about what is and what is not legal when it comes to the flashing lights on a vehicle.
"Things have been handed down word of mouth," said Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Lonny Haschel. "Sometimes it's 'Well, so and so said,' and they didn't actually take a few moments to go read for themselves."
Haschel consulted with DPS attorneys and other experts to get a clear picture of what is street legal. State law bans passenger vehicles from being equipped with sirens, or red, white or blue police-style flashing lights, beacons or alternating lights.
Often, the lights look real because they are real. Many private motorists drive around in vehicles equipped with the devices, which can be easily bought over the Internet, at swap meets and in stores.
"Everybody and their brother is out there running around with them," said Douglas Ervin of Richardson. He drives a Ford Crown Victoria equipped with amber and green flashing lights behind the front windshield, and red and green mounted flashing lights in the back window.
Ervin believes his lights are legal. For decades, he's been showing up at traffic accidents, acting as a helping hand for emergency workers as he places flares and traffic cones and helps directs traffic at the scenes.
But last September, he was himself the victim of a police impostor.
Ervin saw an unmarked car with red and blue flashing lights pull over another car in Oak Lawn. Suspicious, Ervin followed the car with the lights until the impostor stopped and approached Ervin's car.
The man told Ervin he was a U.S. marshal and shoved a gun in Ervin's face. When Ervin told the man that his own in-car video camera was taping the incident, the man fled. He has not been caught.
State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, said she recently saw a black and white vehicle with a light bar and a shield on the side that she initially took for an Irving police cruiser. It was a private security car.
"I believe these companies want people to mistake them for police, that they want to appear more official than they actually are," Harper-Brown said. "It's inappropriate and ... can also lead to dangerous situations."
She has written legislation that would require security vehicles to be plainly labeled as such.
The bill also would forbid security companies from displaying any badge, shield or seal that gives the impression of a connection to federal, state or local government.
But the bill didn't make it out of committee. Harper-Brown is hopeful that she can have it attached to another bill that may become law before the session is over.
Bob Burt, president of a trade group representing security company owners in Texas, said his association supports the legislation and opposes any attempt by security companies to make their vehicles look like squad cars.
"We're adamant that there's got to be a clear distinction between law enforcement and private security," Burt said.
He noted that the association kicked out a Dallas-based member several years ago for using wording on its cars that too closely mimicked that on Dallas police patrol vehicles. That company has gone out of business.
Donald Clark, owner of a small local security firm, says he avoids doing anything that would cause someone to think he is a police officer. But he said he's seen far too many security guards in vehicles decked out like squad cars.
"They're making it seem like they are the police when, in reality, they're not," Clark said.
Two recent cases
Maggard, a former Cockrell Hill fire chief convicted of using his city credit card for personal use and breaking into City Hall, drives a Ford Crown Victoria he uses for his funeral escort business.
It has white sides and a black hood and trunk, as well as rear-mounted red and yellow flashing lights, alternating headlights, blue flashing lights on the dash and a green flashing light on his police-style push bumper.
"All this stuff I have is sold over the counter," said Maggard. When asked about its legality, he said he would make sure his vehicle's lighting complied with state law.
Dallas police Senior Cpl. Tony Castleberg says he encountered Maggard on April 29, when he was off duty and in casual clothes. Castleberg says Maggard pulled up next to him at a traffic light and warned him not to speed in a school zone.
Castleberg says he replied that he wasn't speeding. "I said, 'Are you a cop?' " Castleberg said. He said Maggard responded, "Yes, I am" -- and then turned on his flashing headlights.
Maggard was arrested and faces a charge of impersonation of a public servant, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. He says he's innocent. "There's no way I'm going to identify myself as a police officer," he said.
TOMMY CHARLES JORDAN
Jordan, a manager at Dallas Patrol & Investigators, was driving a Chevrolet Impala equipped with an in-car camera system and a prisoner cage in the back seat when he encountered off-duty Dallas police Sgt. Brandon Cozby about 11 p.m. on March 13.
Cozby told investigators that Jordan got behind him on LBJ Freeway, turning on white and blue lights mounted to the dash of his car. Cozby said Jordan then flashed a side spotlight at his vehicle.
Cozby thought Jordan was trying to perform a traffic stop, so he forced Jordan to pass him, and both cars pulled over. Jordan approached Cozby's vehicle wearing a handgun in his hip holster and a "raid" jacket with a badge similar to that of the Dallas Police Department.
Jordan now faces a felony charge of impersonating a police officer. He told police that he wasn't trying to get Cozby to pull over but that he was trying to get him to slow down. He did not respond to requests for comment.
What the law says
The statutes are complicated, but in general:
Red, white or blue emergency lights -- other than the usual standard lights, such as hazard lights sold on cars -- are reserved for police and fire vehicles.
Only police vehicles can have red in "front of the center of the equipment or vehicle."
Only authorized emergency vehicles -- including, for example, a private vehicle owned by volunteer firefighter going to a fire -- as well as church and school buses and tow trucks can be equipped with alternately flashing red lights.
Exceptions include maintenance and service vehicles -- such as for highway construction or a power company -- which can have amber, red or blue flashing lights.
Sirens are for emergency vehicles.
None of these rules apply to vehicles on private property.
What to do if you're stopped
Be particularly cautious if someone tries to pull you over in a vehicle not clearly marked as police.
When pulled over, turn on your hazard lights. Find a well-lit, public place to stop.
Call 911 to verify that the person trying to stop you is a law officer. Tell the person from a safe distance or a slightly lowered window and locked door that you will cooperate but that you must verify their identity with 911.
If you don't have a phone, ask that another officer in a marked vehicle be sent to the location.
Ask for the person's ID, badge, name and agency.
Sources: Police Impersonation Prevention Initiative, Dallas Morning News research
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