The Cullman County sheriff’s office continues to investigate reports that a man — or possibly more than one — is attempting to stop local motorists and have them get out of their vehicles by impersonating a police officer in an unmarked car.
Until the perpetrator (or perpetrators) are caught, sheriff Mike Rainey has some advice for any motorist concerned that the person pulling him over might not be an officer.
“Just call 911,” said Rainey. “It’s the simplest thing to do, and I want to stress that. When you dial 911, you can explain that you’re being pulled over, and our guys will be able to tell instantly if the person pulling you over is one of our deputies.
"We're doing everything we can to catch the person, or the people, doing this, but we also want people to be informed and to know what to look for with situations like this, whether they're happening in Cullman County or anywhere else.”
A July incident, coupled with a second one last week, still has police trying to discern the motives behind the faked stops. But they are certain that those motives can’t be good.
Both incidents occurred in the daytime and involved female motorists who were driving alone. Both also ended with the impersonator asking the women to get out of their cars, the women refusing, and the suspect leaving in frustration. In both cases, the man did not identify to the victims which law enforcement agency he purported to represent.
Investigators have been gathering information on the case since a July 17 incident on Interstate 65, when a man in silver Chevrolet Impala pulled a local woman over in the southbound lane near the 297 mile marker.
According to that report, the Impala had a Walker County license plate and two small blue lights in the front grille. The woman told police the white male appeared to be in his 40s, had a mustache, a wore a dress shirt, tie and baseball cap with a generic ‘police’ logo on the front.
“He tried to get her out of the car, and she refused, unless he could provide some kind of ID,” Rainey said. “He just turned around and got back in his car and left.”
A second incident this week involved a stop along Day Gap Road (County Road 616), when a man in a dark blue Ford Crown Victoria used an in-cab blue light to initiate a phony traffic stop.
“As soon as she pulled over, the guy turned the blue light off,” said Rainey. “That’s a red flag. That’s absolutely not operating procedure. I take that as a sign that he didn’t want anybody to know he had actually pulled her over.”
The suspect, a white male, wore khaki pants, a black shirt and blue blazer. He asked the woman to produce her driver’s license, walked back to his vehicle, then came back and asked her to step out of her car. She asked the man for proof that he was indeed an officer, but the man told her he wasn’t obligated to show proof. Like the first victim, she refused to get out of her vehicle, and the man shoved her license through her open window and left.
Rainey said police impersonators upbraid the legitimate use of unmarked vehicles in police work, but he offered a few tips motorists can use to ensure they aren’t fooled by impostors.
- Call 911 — If you have a cell phone and have any doubts about the person pulling you over, Rainey said it’s crucial to call 911 and simply explain your concerns. The police will be able to verify the identity of the officer, and can even send a second unit to make contact with the person who’s pulling you over. "It's by far the best way to verify with us that someone is acting legitimately," said Rainey.
- Pull Over in Public — Rainey said it’s perfectly acceptable to slow your vehicle and signal your intent to pull over, but to keep moving until you reach an area where other people will be able to observe your actions. If it’s dark, find a lit area before pulling over.
- Demand ID — No sworn officer, whether in uniform or in street clothes, will ever argue or make excuses if asked to show their identification at a traffic stop.
“People can absolutely ask for ID, and they should,” Rainey said. “All of our officers are going to have a Cullman County sheriff’s department badge, and they will also have a Cullman County Commission card, which has a photo ID on it. There’s nothing wrong with asking to see those, if you’re in doubt.”
- See the light — If an unmarked car ever pulls you over, but switches off the blue lights once you’ve come to a stop, you’re likely dealing with an impostor. Rainey said it’s a violation of operating procedure for an officer to kill blue lights at any point during a roadside stop.
* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.