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Police Make Themselves Known

You’ve probably received at least one iteration of this email: “Warning! Send this to everyone you know,” it threatens. “Police impersonators pose deadly threat to drivers!” The email usually goes on to describe how a potentially gruesome crime was averted -- or not -- by a lone female driver who was pulled over to the side of an isolated road by what she incorrectly thought was an unmarked police vehicle.

Although popular and eminently helpful authentication websites such snopes.com and hoaxslayer.com mostly discredit such emails, they do leave one with a vague sense of unease. Could such a thing happen to me -- or to my daughter?

You can exhale -- in Wilton, that is -- because it’s unlikely such a scenario would occur there. According to Lt. Don Wakeman of the Wilton Police Department, officers do conduct motor vehicle enforcement with unmarked vehicles -- the department uses both an unmarked Dodge Charger and Ford Crown Victoria -- but those cars are readily recognizable once they have been activated in pursuit. And while these “slick vehicles,” as they're referred to in police-speak, might hide effectively from drivers in a highway median or parking lot, they do have fairly obvious markings that identify them as police-driven.

Wakeman says, “Unmarked traffic enforcement vehicles typically have numerous emergency lights visible once they are turned on [including] light bars mounted inside the vehicle at the top of the windshield and along the rear deck, plus flashing headlights and strobes in the grill; and marker, tail and brake lights.”

Further unequivocal identification, says Lt. Wakeman, includes the person approaching you from that “slick” car. “One important aspect of [identifying] an unmarked vehicle is that it will be operated by a uniformed officer who will step out of the vehicle in police uniform.” This, he states, should be a fairly obvious standout to any driver.

According to email legend, these faux officers display police-like flashing lights in their cars in order to trick an unsuspecting driver. But Lt. Wakeman’s fleet of unmarked vehicles are equipped with expensive, extremely high-octane lighting, “for the safety of the officer and the stopped operator.” Lt. Wakeman adds any citizen who is pulled over by law enforcement has the right to ask for that officer’s identification. In fact it’s more than likely the officer will display his or her badge and portable radio as well. Additionally, the officer will carry an identification card.

“It should be readily apparent to a reasonable person,” says Wakeman, “That this person is a police officer.” And, he adds, “The officer will also be stopping the operator for an actual violation, which may also be apparent to the driver.”

If you’ve run a stop sign or hit the gas pedal with a little too much oomph and you’re stopped by a police officer, don’t panic. Urban legend notwithstanding, you’ve probably broken a law and the police officer is only doing his job, which is, after all, to enforce it.

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