Wednesday May 25 2011
Is that really a police officer behind you?
By: Michael Notolli, Guest columnist
If you drive in Rocklin, you have certainly seen our police officers making traffic enforcement contacts all over town. On any given day, our officers “pull over” dozens of motorists to issue warnings and citations for moving violations, cell phone usage, equipment problems, and expired registration. Since the vast majority of these contacts are made by uniformed police officers driving marked police cars and motorcycles, it is easy for motorists to tell if they are being contacted by a real police officer. In other words, when the red lights go on behind you and you look in the rearview mirror, there should be no question in your mind the person pulling you over is a police officer. There could come a time, however, when you see red lights behind you and you can’t determine if they are coming from a real police car driven by a real police officer. Most police departments utilize unmarked police vehicles and plain clothes officers and detectives for special assignments. Although their primary function is not traffic enforcement, they may, from time to time, pull over traffic violators (especially if the violation endangers someone’s safety). When they do, they often request a marked patrol vehicle to make the traffic stop and/or to assist with the contact. Unfortunately, there are times when pranksters and/or dangerous criminals pose as police officers and use red lights to pull over unsuspecting motorists. The prankster usually drives off leaving the motorist stopped on the side of the road wondering what happened. On the other hand, dangerous criminals may use this technique to contact drivers to commit robberies, carjackings, assaults, kidnappings, etc. There are several things to consider if an unmarked vehicle attempts to pull you over. First, ask yourself why an officer would be pulling you over in the first place. If you have done nothing wrong, that could be the first sign something is suspicious. There’s always the chance an officer may stop you because your vehicle has no taillights, for example, or because your vehicle matches the description of a vehicle used in a recent crime. Second, be wary if the person asks you to exit your vehicle. Police officers do not typically ask drivers to get out of their vehicle for routine traffic infractions. Police officers will, however, ask drivers to exit their vehicle if they suspect the driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If your vehicle matches the description of a vehicle involved in a recent serious crime, the officer who stops you may remain back at his/her police vehicle and may even point a weapon in your direction. In these cases, additional marked police vehicles will normally arrive to assist the first officer. You should have no trouble at that point recognizing that real officers are present. Follow their commands and everything will be fine. If you find yourself in a situation where you are not sure who is pulling you over, here are some suggestions: Don’t ignore the red light. Immediately drive to the right-hand edge or curb of the highway and stop. The presence of strobe lights, spotlights, and a siren would be additional evidence that a “real police officer” is behind you (but still not a 100 percent guarantee). Do not pull over in a dark, desolate, or otherwise dangerous location. Drive to a safe, lighted and well-populated location. If you are on the freeway, for example, take the first exit and drive to an open gas station, store, fast food restaurant, police or fire station before stopping. Motion to the officer that you see them and acknowledge their presence. A friendly hand wave or a hand motion out the window indicating that you want them to follow you should suffice. If it is night time, turn on your vehicle’s interior light temporarily while you make the gesture, to assist the officer in seeing your movement. Activate your vehicle’s emergency flashers. If you have a cell phone, contact the police department having jurisdiction in the area and ask the dispatcher to verify the person behind you is one of their officers. If it is not one of their officers, ask the dispatcher to send an officer to your location, or to provide you with a location where an officer will be waiting for you. In Rocklin, call 625-5400 for non-emergency calls or 9-1-1 for emergency calls. If you are traveling near a freeway cellular reception tower, calling 9-1-1 may connect you with the California Highway Patrol. If this is the case and you are not on the freeway, ask the CHP dispatcher to transfer your call to the Rocklin Police Department. Once you have driven to a place where it is safe to pull over, make sure your vehicle is locked and the windows are rolled up. When you park your vehicle, leave yourself an escape route. Be prepared to drive off if you find yourself in danger. Roll the window down just far enough to establish verbal communication (one inch should be enough). Do not get out of your vehicle. Be polite and keep your hands in plain sight. Do not make any quick or furtive movements that might startle an officer. Tell the officer you did not pull over right away because you were not sure that he/she was a real police officer. If the person is not in uniform, they should have a badge and an identification card ready for display. Inspect them as best you can without leaving your vehicle or jeopardizing your safety. If it becomes obvious the person is not a police officer, honk the horn to attract attention or simply drive away. Use your cell phone to report the incident. If the vehicle leaves, you can remain at the location if you feel it is safe to do so and wait for an officer to arrive. If you drive off and the vehicle continues to follow you, let the dispatcher know what is happening. Do not drive home. Drive to a location where an officer is waiting to assist. -- Michael Notolli is crime prevention and volunteer services coordinator for Rocklin Police.