The pall cast over the NYPD by the Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, and Gidone Busch cases would seem to make a New York police officer's job an unenviable one. But while recent events may make being a cop more difficult, masquerading as one -- especially now that Police Commissioner Howard Safir has allowed the Street Crime Unit to go undercover again -- is more fashionable than ever.
Take the case of an armored-car driver who was making a drop-off in Astoria early in the morning on October 15 when he noticed a dark car flashing a red light at him. Thinking it was an unmarked police car, he stopped. The "cop," who had a badge around his neck, explained to the driver that he had been pulled over because the van's taillight was out. Then he put a gun to the driver's head, cuffed him, and duct-taped his mouth. The impersonator and an accomplice emptied the vehicle of approximately $440,000.
The incident was not an isolated event: Two days earlier, also in Queens, crooks playing cops stole $40,000 in computer equipment. On the same day, four men wielding police shields and handguns robbed a store in Corona.
Mercenary impersonations are, of course, as old as Jacob and Esau. But in New York, phony cops have surfaced often enough that in 1994, the NYPD set up the Police Impersonation Investigation Unit. Lieutenant Timothy McCarthy, who heads the division, says impostors rarely dress in full uniform and most often simply flash a badge. It is illegal, McCarthy says, to buy or sell real NYPD shields, but fake badges, or "dupes," are sometimes sold to police officers. "A lot of cops are afraid they're going to lose their shield, because you lose ten days of vacation," McCarthy explains. "So some guys buy a dupe and keep the good one in their locker. It's a gray area," he admits. "I know some guys have them, but they're not supposed to." Impostors, he says, are probably using lost dupes, or even toy badges.
What fake cops may not realize is that carrying a badge has its disadvantages. "If the community is especially angry with the police," says Thomas Reppetto, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York, "why do you want to pretend to be one of them?"