The Palo Alto Police Department has issued an advisory for how residents can distinguish a real police officer from an impersonator after a man claiming to be an officer approached two teens and displayed a gun.
The incident, which occurred on Sept. 5, has made the community understandably uneasy, police said in the announcement.
"First of all, and fortunately, you should know that police impersonation is very rare in our city -- usually years separate events," police said.
An estimated 95 percent of enforcement efforts are conducted by fully uniformed police officers in fully marked police cars, not undercover vehicles. If officers are signaling someone to stop, they will activate their forward-facing red lights and sound a siren. Officers do not solely use the public-address systems on their police cars to make a stop, police said.
A detective will occasionally conduct an enforcement stop in an unmarked car. These stops typically occur only for extremely hazardous moving violations, such as reckless driving, or when there is reasonable suspicion that the person to be stopped is involved in a criminal violation. If time allows, detectives will often radio for a marked car to conduct the stop, according to police.
Detectives in unmarked cars do not work traffic enforcement assignments. But it is legal for them to make a stop in their unmarked car, which are classified as emergency vehicles just as much as a police black and white car, according to police. If detectives signal someone to stop, they will activate their forward-facing red lights and sound a siren. Palo Alto police detective cars are not equipped with public-address systems, however.
A detective will be wearing obvious police equipment -- a holstered sidearm on the hip, handcuffs, a badge, a radio, and often a black vest with a sewn-on PAPD badge and the word "police" prominently displayed on it. They will display their badge, which will clearly identify the Palo Alto Police Department and the officer's rank.
"If you ever have any doubt, ask to see their police identification. We all carry our department-issued police identification card, which has a picture of the officer, their name and rank, and the signature of Chief Dennis Burns, and the words "Palo Alto Police" prominently displayed on it. Any legitimate law enforcement officer working in plainclothes will readily produce that identification card, and in fact many would even encourage you to call dispatch to verify their identity if you have a doubt," police said in the advisory.
"If you still feel unsure that you're dealing with a legitimate police officer, tell the officer that you're going to call 9-1-1 from your cell phone to verify their identity. Our dispatchers know where all of our officers are at all times and will be able to promptly confirm that you're dealing with a legitimate police officer," police said.
State law governs when drivers or bicyclists must pull to the right and stop for any emergency vehicle -- marked or unmarked. It requires the use of a siren and a steady forward-facing illuminated red light above the hood line. The use of sirens and/or red/blue forward-facing lights is illegal in any other circumstance.
Police released information about the impersonator a week after the incident on Sept. 12 so that detectives had a chance to interview the involved students and to prepare a sketch of the impostor, they said.
"Our goal is always to release as much accurate information as possible. We hope this helps. Please help us by sharing the suspect sketch far and wide, and by being our extra eyes and ears for suspicious activity. We appreciate your assistance. By working together, we have the best chance to identify this man and to make an arrest in this case," police said.