- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

NEW YORK | A man forces his way into an apartment to rape the woman who lives there. A guy on a bicycle handcuffs and robs pedestrians, and another gropes random women on the side of the road.

In each case, men pretending to be police preyed on victims who let down their guard because they thought they were being stopped by real officers.

Officer impersonation is a nationwide crime, and it has flourished in recent years with brazen criminals sometimes going to great lengths to pull off their ruse.

“You wave a badge at someone and tell them to pull over and you’d be amazed at how many people are going to obey,” said Naftali Berrill, a psychologist who runs the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science. “They disarm their victims by appearing to be cops.”

More than a costume, the crime is about attitude.

“It takes nerves of steel to pull this off, the average person couldn’t do it,” Mr. Berrill said.

After a city and federal investigation, two men were arrested earlier this month for purportedly running a phony bounty hunting school where “graduates” used school-issued credentials to impersonate officers and get out of traffic tickets. A Long Island man was sentenced last month for running a virtual one-man police department, complete with a car with sirens and a fake police station where he handcuffed his victims to a chair.

There are no readily available national statistics on the number of impersonation cases, but it is enough of an issue to prompt some cities to take action.

New York City police arrest about 100 suspects annually on charges of impersonating an officer. The New York Police Department has a specialized unit, thought to be the only one in the country, dedicated to solving cases where a suspect impersonates an officer.

The unit analyzes statistics, uses DNA and other techniques and even sets up sting operations, going undercover to investigate impersonators.

Fake officers have clearly benefited from the Internet and advances in technology that allow them to buy and replicate real badges and uniforms. To combat those improvements, the NYPD copyrighted its badge, making illegal to reproduce it.

An impersonator is usually dressed in plain clothes and carries a small badge or identification. The badges range from generic, small metallic shields similar to what a security officer carries, to something more sophisticated and authentic-looking, police say.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said that every incident undermines real officers’ ability to work.

Investigators encounter a complex criminal profile in dealing with such crimes. Some impostors are master manipulators, while others are delusional, with hero complexes.

Others impersonate police to commit crimes. Last month, men posing as officers committed a string of robberies. And drug dealers often pretend to be police to steal from other dealers, officials said.

“In some circumstances, it’s a good in, it’s a fast in, a safe in, and then they steal your property or commit another offense,” Lt. McGovern said.

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