Truesee's Daily Wonder

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Saturday, December 12, 2009


Special unit busts fake cops

Special Chicago unit busts fake cops

William Lee

Tribune reporter

December 13, 2009

They police the fake police.

The three veteran Chicago police officers in a little-known unit dedicated to cracking down on phony cops have hundreds of stories of people posing as police officers. The tales range from clever and sophisticated to stupidly brazen.

Police Officers Don Edwards and Roman Matthews, and Sgt. John Spellman make up the 18-year-old unit.

The three of them are tackling a problem common to the nation's big cities. The Chicago unit is identical to one in the New York Police Department.

In a recent case in Chicago, an impersonator persuaded an 80-year-old woman to withdraw about $18,000 from her bank account in order to pay her husband's bail. In a panic to have her husband freed, the woman never checked to see if he was indeed in police custody.

"Once these knuckleheads start talking to you, they own you," said Matthews, a four-year veteran of the unit.

Just this week, a repo man was charged after pretending to be a police officer and creating a ruse with the owner of the car he was trying to repossess, police said.

And then there is the well-known case of the 14-year-old boy masquerading as a cop and going out on calls with a Chicago police officer.

During the holidays, which the officers say is a lucrative time for con artists, the Police Impersonation Unit is aimed at protecting the elderly. There have been three arrests in the last three weeks of men impersonating police officers.

Fake officers, who combine tough-cop attitude with easily acquired police props, often gain their victims' trust by playing on their respect or fear of police. Senior citizens are popular targets, as are immigrants, drug dealers and others not likely to cooperate with a police investigation, the officers said.

Police say part of fake cops' success comes from looking the part.

"These guys, especially the ones who prey on the elderly, are very nice in their appearance -- wearing shirt and ties -- and that puts people at ease," said Lt. David Naleway of the Internal Affairs' general investigation section.

To further enhance the cop look, impersonators need only a few props: A police belt, a radio, and sweaters with police patches are all available through online stores or elsewhere. Some impersonators have even bought old Crown Victoria police cruisers, Naleway said.

But one key tool of an impersonator is a fake badge, preferably a silver star like the ones Chicago police wear.

In one recent case, a Hyde Park man used a security guard badge to pose as a federal agent outside of the Goodman Theatre. In another, an admitted gang member on parole used a plastic sheriff's badge to pose as a police officer. Both men were charged with impersonation of a peace officer.

Obvious fake badges may tip off some would-be victims, but the unit has seen some eye-popping copies of the new Chicago police badge hitting the streets.

Naleway says the key to not being a victim is asking to see not only the badge, but also the city ID card that comes with a hologram.

"Very few people will ever look at (the ID) and then, because they honestly believe that they're the police, they're afraid to ask to see the ID," Naleway said. "A real police officer will never be offended if you ask to see their ID."

While the impersonators' goal is clear -- money -- there is a similar kind of criminal whose motives aren't always clear.

The case of the phony teenage cop gained national headlines and embarrassed police brass when the uniformed teen walked into the Grand Crossing Police District and, for five hours, drove a squad car and answered calls with another officer.

Elderly, immigrants often victims of brazen impersonators

Police classify the teen -- who is in jail for violating terms of his probation -- as an impostor rather than an impersonator. An impersonator, they said, poses as an officer in order to commit crimes, while an impostor merely seeks to look the part. "We don't know what their motive is," Naleway concedes. "Maybe it's ego more than anything else."

The boy was an extraordinary abnormality, police say, because of his confidence, his attention to detail in assembling his police uniform and his familiarity with police procedure.

The average impersonator can be exposed in brief chit-chat with a real officer.

The Police Impersonation Unit's officers downplay the threat of impostors, saying impersonators routinely rob seniors of their life savings.

"(Impostors are) making up a story, that's all it is," Naleway said. "The impersonators are the ones out there hurting people."

A real Chicago police badge (TOP) and a fake one (BOTTOM), photographed at police headquarters.
Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune / November 18, 2009


A real Chicago police badge (TOP) and a fake one (BOTTOM), photographed at police headquarters.


Keeping safe

-- Ask to see both the officer's star and city ID card. Chicago police officers are required to carry both.

-- Be cautious any time a police officer calls you at home to tell you a family member is in custody. Police only call if the family member is a minor.

-- Never meet officers in front of the police station or places such as banks or ATMs.

-- If you believe that the person trying to pull you off the road isn't a real police officer, call police from your cell phone immediately, slow down to 10 mph and go to the nearest busy intersection, gas station or major business.

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