Impersonating a police officer is illegal—and dangerously easy.
By Jennie Leszkiewicz
AS he was riding home from work one night, James Gottlieb noticed a car with flashing lights behind him. Gottlieb, a Long Island bank manager, pulled his car over to the side of the peaceful residential street. An officer approached the car and Gottlieb asked to see the cop’s identification. When the officer refused, a fight broke out. The officer fired three shots hitting Gottlieb twice. Gottlieb, 49, died just over an hour later at a nearby hospital.
It turned out that the officer was no officer at all. Instead he was a career criminal, out on parole, with a long history of impersonating cops.
“All many of the criminals needed was to know the jargon and to talk the talk,” said Thomas Redmond, former commanding officer of the NYPD’s Police Impersonation Investigation Unit. “All they needed was something shiny to get their foot in the door.”
The recent proposal by the City Council to crack down on fake IDs for underage drinkers is spotlighting the problem of counterfeit police identification as well. Impersonating a police officer has never been easier. It’s now possible to buy an NYPD T-shirt from a vendor in Times Square.
And most of the time, it’s all perfectly legal. For years, children have been wowed by the authority of police officers, but now many are extending that interest into adulthood. The relative ease of getting police paraphernalia has created an opportunity for dangerous criminals and for the professional collector who enjoys owning police patches, badges or uniforms.
This leaves police and lawmakers with the task of distinguishing the criminal from the enthusiast. The New York City Council is working on legislation that would increase penalties and fines for the illegal use of NYPD and fire department uniforms and insignia. Laws against impersonating a police officer are more than 20 years old, preceding this whole phenomenon, said Anat Jacobson, a spokeswoman for Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate for New York.
Each state has its own system of monitoring the purchase and sale of these goods. In New York, it is already illegal to sell badges or host conventions for the sale of badges or patches. In 1994, the city went so far as to create the Police Impersonation Investigation Unit. “Considering we are one of the highest terrorist targets, it is obviously a bigger concern here,” Jacobson said. Internet sites are hard to regulate, she added. “The police pants are really just cargo pants. They are not hard to get.“
Rocky Gonzalez, one of the city’s authorized dealers, is acutely aware of the dangers involved in selling police paraphernalia. Owner of Blue Knight Police Equipment Distributors, Gonzalez, a former assistant deputy warden for the New York City Department of Corrections, has been in business since 1982 and checks the identification of his customers vigilantly.
Gonzalez sells some items to the public, like leather goods, award plaques and mugs. His uniforms, including pants and shirts, sell for more than $500. But he keeps the uniforms and the other collectibles most highly prized by criminals behind the counter. Police officers, corrections officers, emergency medical technicians and firefighters must bring official paperwork before he will sell to them.
Gonzalez gives his staff regular briefings to reiterate the importance of selling restricted items only to individuals with identification. “I am a patriot, and I am concerned about the city, and not interested in making a quick buck,” Gonzalez said. “If we are in doubt about the credentials of an individual, they get nothing.”
Such safeguards are more difficult to enforce on the Internet. Aware of the problem, PoliceEquipmentWorldwide.com sells megaphones with police sirens, police breeches, riot helmets, sheriffs’ hats and other accessories. However, they do not sell full uniforms or badges, said Anne Anderson, president of the company. Anderson, 47, a former police sergeant in Cincinnati, started the company more than 14 years ago, and works out of her Florida home and warehouse. The company’s annual sales have grown to just under $500,000.
A small fraction of their orders comes from individuals. They mostly export to established law enforcement departments all over the world and to businesses like Warner Bros. Studios and to Disney World.
Large online companies like eBay have generally prohibited the sale of law enforcement badges, uniforms and sirens from their Web sites. Only if the sellers get the written consent of the specific law enforcement agency can items be posted on eBay, said a spokesman for the company. Ebay acknowledges, however, that with 4 million new postings each day, they can’t always prevent prohibited items from appearing—but they will remove them as soon as they spot them.
Meanwhile, collecting, trading and buying has become an international business and thus harder to police. For the past six years, James Dennis, 36, who lives in the small county of Lincolnshire, England, has been collecting full uniforms, badges, bulletproof vests and entire sets of internal memos and paperwork from a disbanded division of the New York City Transit Police Department. “There is no problem in England of collecting these types of items,” Dennis said. “We have little gun crime in the United Kingdom due to the rigid gun control laws here.”
And it is a sobering lesson for law enforcement. No matter what regulations are enforced in the United States, there will always be ways to get items abroad. For those who think customs officials will prevent equipment from making it across the borders, think again. “Some items that do arrive here in the U.K., I know get inspected by customs,” said Dennis. “But I have not had any problem as of yet.”