In the killing spree in Nova Scotia earlier this month that left 22 people dead, the suspected gunman, a wealthy denturist, wore an authentic RCMP uniform and drove a replica cop car that could fool even the most seasoned officers.
At a press conference following the murders, Nova Scotia RCMP Superintendent Chris Leather said the gunman's ease of movements were “greatly benefited by the fact that he had a vehicle that looked identical in every way to a police car.” Fellow RCMP Superintendent Darren Campbell said he couldn’t “imagine any more horrific set of circumstances (than) when you’re trying to search someone that looks like you… That was an obvious advantage the suspect had on the police.”
While Wortman is an obvious outlier, research shows that during times of heavy regulation like in a pandemic, impersonators will take advantage. Police across North America are seeing more and more fake officers pop up, the majority of them non-violent. The increase in police power and climate of fear brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have created an ecosystem that allows for police impersonators to flourish and taste the power they so desperately seek.
In Wellington County, Ontario, a county about an hour and a half drive north of Toronto, a man whose vehicle looked like an unmarked police car pulled over a woman and asked her to prove she was an essential worker. He left when she fulfilled his wishes.
In an unrelated incident in the same county days later, a vehicle pulled up behind a family of cyclists and the driver spoke through a PA system installed on the vehicle.
"He yelled something at them that had to do with some of the emergency management civil protection rules about there being more than five people in a group,” Derek Roger, a spokesperson for Ontario Provincial Police, told VICE. “We're not exactly sure what he said but it did relate to COID-19."
Police arrested 25-year-old Gregory Calvin Smith and charged him with impersonating a peace officer.
Several jurisdictions in the United States have reported a rise in police impersonations amid the pandemic. On April 10, Kansas Bureau of Investigation issued a statement saying there had been "an increase in reports of law enforcement impersonators stopping Kansas travellers,” and mentioned 10 reports in the past several weeks. "So far, no travellers have reported injuries or stolen property during these incidents,” the statement said.
In Colorado, police imposters have been reported in at least five communities since stay-at-home orders were issued. Impersonators even set up a fake roadblock in the mountain town of Greeley. Crystal McCoy, an information officer with the Aurora Police Department in Colorado, told the Associated Press the news was "frightening because we don’t really know what their intentions are."
"We don’t know who they are," said McCoy. "We realize it’s scary for the community and it’s also very alarming for us.”
Mary Dodge, a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, is one of the few researchers investigating the phenomenon of police impersonators. Dodge co-published a study in 2012 on it and is currently analyzing around 300 cases of police impersonators. Dodge said that while some do it for violent reasons they’re rare. Others impersonate as a way to aid theft. But for the majority of impersonators, it's about wanting to have the power a cop wields.
“A lot of times, particularly with the cop wannabes, they're not doing it for any materialistic gain or any violent purpose,” said Dodge. “It's just a show of power.”
Her research also shows that times of regulation and fear can create an ecosystem in which police impersonators can thrive, like they did post-9/11. Robert Gellately, a scholar who looked at police imposters in Nazi Germany, told the New York Times, "The more we regulate, the more opportunity it opens for people who want to capitalize on it for their own selfish purposes.”
“Right now is a great opportunity for impersonators,” Dodge told VICE.
Dodge’s 2012 sample found that 87 percent of police impersonators were men, and 85 percent were white. The impersonators tended to be young; the average age was 31 and about half were under 30.
It's important to note that, due to the nature of the crimes, coming upon hard numbers of how often this is occurring is near impossible.
“This is the type of crime that often is not recorded,” said Dodge. “Why would a person who thought that they were being pulled over or were ripped off, especially if they're lower income than the officer, report that to the other (real) police thinking that they would believe them?”
With that in mind you can take a cold comfort in the fact the majority of cases of police impersonations have not resulted in violence.
"These people do exist but it's not a rampant problem,” said Roger. “Certainly we're aware of these people and we understand the public concern.”
Both Dodge and Roger said that if you feel a fake police officer pulled you over, the best thing to do is call 911 and have the dispatcher confirm that they’re legit.
“You're not going to get in trouble for that and there won't be a lecture for the misuse of 911,” said Roger.
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