Police impersonation is an act of falsely portraying oneself as a member of the police, for the purpose of deception. In the vast majority of countries the practice is illegal and carries a custodial sentence.
Impersonating a police officer is sometimes committed in order to assert police-like authority in order to commit a crime. Posing as a police officer enables the offender to legitimize the appearance of an illegal act, such as: burglary, making a traffic stop, or detaining.
Dressing up as a police officer in costume (i.e. for Halloween), or pretending to be a police officer for the purpose of play or a harmless prank toward an acquaintance is generally not considered a crime, provided that those involved recognize the imposter is not a real police officer, and the imposter is not trying to deceive those involved into thinking he/she is. Nevertheless, replica police uniforms sold in the UK must not be identical to the uniforms currently used by the police, and traders have been jailed in the past for selling on genuine uniforms
The following impersonations class as the offence:
- Verbal identification: The imposter announces to the unsuspecting victim that they are a police officer or other law enforcement agent.
- Fake Badge or Warrant card: The imposter, though not in any special clothes, displays a police-like badge or identification card to the victim. Sometimes a real police officer will not even be able to differentiate between the real and fake badge, as some duplicates are very similar to a real badge, if not identical to one. This is much more of a problem in the USA than in the UK, as in the UK police identification includes photographic ID as well as the police shield, whereas in the USA a police shield alone counts as ID, making it easier for people to pretend to be police officers.
- Fake uniform: The imposter wears a uniform that looks very much like that of a police officer.
- Fake vehicle: The imposter places police lights (these can be either permanently mounted onto the car or temporary lights magnetically attached to the cartop), decals, siren, or other equipment on a personal vehicle to disguise it as a police car and enable the offender to pass through red traffic lights, bypass traffic other non-emergency traffic would have to wait for, make traffic stops, or even arrests.
Much of the equipment described above is available for purchase by the general public, thereby enabling imposters to obtain the necessary materials to commit such a crime. While the equipment will not bear the name of a specific law enforcement agency, the unsuspecting victim may not notice the difference.
Some of the following crimes have been committed while impersonating a police officer:
- Home invasion, by gaining entry under the guise of a police officer, followed by theft from the premises, rape, torture, or in rare cases, murder.
- Theft and Grand Theft Auto - approaching a victim, explaining that an item or a vehicle is stolen. The impersonator will then seize the "evidence" and never return it.
- Armed robbery, following a traffic stop
- Kidnapping following a traffic stop or false arrest
- Fake authority, in which the officer attempts to extort money from the victim, claiming it is a fine, or can be paid on the spot to avoid further legal consequences.
- Prank phone calls and other fraudulent / deceptive electronic communications, where one might make a comment about a group that invites retaliation.
Possibly the most famous incident of police impersonation was during the Saint Valentine's Day massacre, where two hitmen were disguised as police, pretended to arrest seven rival gang members and killed them with two other hitmen. Another famous example is the Utøya massacre in Norway.
The 2014 American film Let's Be Cops features the main characters pretending to be police officers. A popular webseries Dick Figures aired an episode called 'We're Cops' featured 'red' and 'blue' rob a bank dressed as a police officer