How do you know it's a police officer?

Police impersonator steals driver's keys

by Barbara Wood

Special to the Almanac

After a young woman from Atherton was pulled over last week by what turned out to be a police impersonator who stole her car keys, Atherton police advise that there are several things that can be done to make sure the driver of an unmarked vehicle is really a police officer.

"If you suspect the person in the unmarked car is not a police officer," Sergeant Sherman Hall said, "calling 9-1-1 is a reasonable way to verify the authenticity."

The 9-1-1 dispatcher can tell if the stop is legitimate; if not they can send help. "If you don't have a telephone, and have genuine concerns, head for a well-lit, populated location," he said.

He added that the law requiring hands-free use of cell phones while driving has an exception for calling 9-1-1. A genuine police officer will show a badge and police department photo identification, he said.

The incident occurred on Nov. 30 when a 23-year-old woman driving a 2007 BMW pulled over on Atherton Avenue at Elena Avenue when she saw a car with a blue light on its roof following her.

"The suspect approached her and asked for her driver's license and registration, as well as her car keys," Hall said.

When the woman asked why she had been stopped, she was told she was following the vehicle in front of her too closely.

"The suspect asked her if she had had anything to drink," Hall said. "He also asked if there was anything edible in the car." The man gave the woman back her driver's license and registration but instead of returning her keys, drove away.

Hall said the woman initially believed the "officer" might be repositioning his car so she waited a short time for him to return before she called a family member to bring a spare set of car keys so she could drive home.

"Upon reflecting upon the unusual nature of the encounter, she called us about 20 minutes after the event." Hall said. "We searched the area, but did not find the suspect."

Because the fake officer had her keys and address, the Atherton police did "keep special watch over the car," he said.

The man was described as a Hispanic or Filipino male adult between 27- and 50-years-old driving a dark Honda or Toyota. He was not in a police uniform.

"These kinds of incidents are unusual," Hall said. "We take them very seriously. In fact, we immediately alerted neighboring agencies."

Only about a handful of such incidents occur in Northern California each year, he said, and senior officers in Atherton could not recall this ever happening in Atherton before.

Hall also said in California every emergency vehicle must display a forward facing, solid red light. Blue lights are OK, but the cluster of lights must include a solid red one, he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Question everything!
a resident of Los Altos
on Dec 6, 2011 at 11:08 am

This is like believing everything we read, just because it's printed in a newspaper so we think it's accurate, without questioning it.

This man had no police uniform? No official looking police car? Just a man in a Honda or a Toyota, with a blue light on its roof?

Stores should be on the alert for two men, ages 27-50, looking to buy a solid red light. Let's think ahead.

Like this comment
Posted by Ex bayareaian
a resident of another community
on Dec 6, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I used to live in the bay area, and had to deal with the mindless zombie culture. Then I moved out of state, to a state where personal freedoms are more protected. I work along side officers, and from my own experiences being pulled over as well as from speaking to them, officers are much more polite and less threatening. In a society when individuals can pack more power then the police, where public service funding is at the mercy of the public, and people are generally culturally more respectable, life is way way way better.

Like this comment
Posted by don't stop
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 6, 2011 at 4:21 pm

I never stop for unmarked police cars. A plain clothes cop is not going to stop you for a minor traffic infraction. If the problem is more serious, they will call marked police cars for backup, then you can stop safely.

Like this comment
Posted by qq
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2011 at 12:56 am

If you are being pulled over and don't feel safe, always turn on your safety hazards. This is a simple way of visually acknowledging the officer without stopping (this will hopefully delay the "failure to yield" chase then will inevitable ensue).

You can then either drive to the nearest police station if you know where it is, or dial 911 and ask the operator to verify that an officer is trying to stop you.

This is how they handle it in Austin:

Web Link

"What if I am in a secluded area or want to verify that a real police officer is pulling me over?

When you see the lights flashing, slow down and pull to the right and turn your hazard lights on. This will act as an acknowledgement to the officer. If you have a cell phone, call 911 and tell the operator that you want to verify that an officer is trying to stop you. Listen to the operator’s instructions as to what to do next. If you do not have a cell phone, stop in a well lit/well populated area, lock your door, roll your window down an inch and request the officer provide his/her department issued identification card. All Texas peace officers have a department issued id card.

If you believe that a real officer is trying to stop you but you do not want to stop in a dark area, again slow down, pull to the right and activate your hazards. You can continue to drive until you reach the next well lit area.

The important thing in both of these situations is to acknowledge the officer trying to stop you.

What if I am being stopped by an unmarked police car?
Acknowledge the officer as described above. Call 911 to verify the officer’s identity or stop in a well lit/well populated area and verify the officer’s id as described above."

The more you know...


Like this comment
Posted by Steve C
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I think there is a # you can call from anywhere that will connect you with the local police dispatcher in the area. I think it is *77 or something like that. One of the parents on my son's sports team posted this in an email a couple of years ago, after a similar story hit the newswaves. The dispatcher can then verify if they have an officer reporting that you have been pulled over. Might be worth checking this with the local police department.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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