How to tell a real police officer from a fake one - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

How to tell a real police officer from a fake one

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Police say it's a relatively rare but serious crime -- when someone impersonates a police officer.

Early Sunday morning, the Jo Daviess County (Illinois) Sheriff's Office got a report of a man stopped outside of Galena by the driver of a black Buick Century, who was allegedly claiming to be a police officer.

That story is HERE:

In an earlier incident just last month, Dubuque resident Tim Mills reports he, too, was pulled over by a man impersonating a police officer.

Dubuque Police Lt. Scott Baxter said impersonating a police officer can be an easy thing for somebody to do.

If a person goes online, for example, and buys red and blue flashing lights for a car, it can be hard for the average driver to distinguish an impersonator's car from an unmarked police vehicle -- especially at night.

Jo Daviess County Sheriff Kevin Turner said the county had a string of incidents in 2011, where a group of teenagers conducted traffic stops using a police light app on their smartphones.

In Mills' case, however, the man pulling him over didn't even use red and blue lights.

Mills told KWWL on Monday it may have been his car's noisy exhaust that drew the attention of an aggressive driver one night in mid-May.

"He's flashing his brights at me, and I'm getting up to speed and he's still right on me," Mills recalled.

He said the driver of an SUV kept flashing his brights and tailgating him, as the two vehicles traveled east on US Highway 20/Dodge Street in Dubuque.

"It wasn't like he was trying to imitate the strobes on a police car or anything like that, but he was trying to get my attention, which he succeeded with," Mill said. "So I figured, 'Alright, I'm going to pull into the first parking lot I find and talk to this guy and see what he wants.'"

He pulled into the parking lot of Medical Associates and waited for the SUV's driver to approach.

"He didn't really do anything, so I got out of my car and walked over, and I asked him what's the deal," Mills said. "He didn't seem very confident in what he was saying."

"He says, 'Oh, you know, I'm with the Dubuque Police Enforcement, or, Law Enforcement,' and this-and-that,'" Mills recalled, "and says, 'You're going to be under arrest for having a loud exhaust on your car."
"I thought, 'Alright, that's not usually something you get arrested for,'" Mills said.

When the driver claimed to be a Dubuque law enforcement officer, Mills got suspicious.

"I interrupted him. I said, 'No, I need to see a badge before I'm going to cooperate any further with this, and the guy says, 'Oh, you know, I can't show it to you right now,'" Mills recalled. "He says, 'Oh...Well, I mean, if you want to go, you're free to go, but we're going follow you, we're going to find you.'"

That's when Mills returned to his car, drove several blocks away and called the police department, which verified no legitimate officer had pulled over Mills' vehicle.

"I was pretty freaked out," Mills said. "I got pretty agitated through the whole thing and, of course, to the point where I didn't even think to get a license plate, which I'm still kicking myself about to this day."

Lt. Baxter said anyone suspicious of a possible law enforcement vehicle trying to conduct a traffic stop on them should call 911.

"Just advise them of the situation," Baxter said. "'Hey, I have a car behind me, it appears as though they're trying to pull me over. I'm concerned that it's not a legitimate peace officer. Can you verify that?' The dispatcher should be able to call on the radio very quickly to verify, you know, either confirm that or maybe figure out that it's not an officer."

He said people who do that should put on their hazard lights and drive at a slow speed, in case the driver of the car behind them is, in fact, a law enforcement officer.

Mills admits getting out of his car to talk with the driver of the SUV was putting himself in an unsafe position and said if a situation like that ever happens to him again, he'll call 911 before stopping.

"Luckily, it didn't turn out to be anything more than just a guy hassling me," Mills said. "Obviously, there could've been a lot of other possibilities."

People who don't have a cell phone on them, Baxter said, can put on their hazard lights and drive slowly to the nearest well-populated area, such as a 24-hour store's parking lot or an open gas station.

If that concerned driver without a cell phone is in a rural area, Baxter said, he or she may have to stop for the possible officer but then roll their window down only a crack and ask for the supposed officer's identification first.

No suspect has been identified in either Mills' incident from May or from the alleged Sunday morning phony traffic stop in Jo Daviess County, Ill.

Impersonating a public official is an aggravated misdemeanor in the state of Iowa, punishable by up to two years behind bars and a fine of up to $6,250.

In Illinois, false personation of a police officer is a felony, punishable by two to five years' imprisonment.

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