The Dangers of Unmarked Police Cars

Plus: Why at least one Delco PD should rethink its speed-trap tactics.

In separate incidents recently, two people were gunned down on Mississippi highways by a police impersonator, who, it appears, used a fake unmarked police car to pull over his unsuspecting victims. Police are concerned that, because of this incident and others like it, citizens may no longer stop for unmarked cars.

Well it’s about time. They shouldn’t stop. Not now. Not ever.

Marked Police Car vs. Unmarked Police Car

What is the purpose of unmarked police cars? Is it to catch drivers committing violations, or to promote traffic safety? In either case, marked cars accomplish both objectives just as well, if not better.

When drivers see a marked police car, they instinctively slow down and evaluate how they were driving. Just seeing that cruiser is enough of a reality check to re-focus on driving safely, and the police know it. That is why more and more departments are placing fully marked “dummy” cars (with no officers) in areas where drivers have a tendency to speed or roll through stop signs.

If the object is to not be “seen” by drivers, this can be (and is) effectively realized by using fully marked cars without the giveaway lights on the roof. This solves two problems: Speeding drivers can’t readily identify these vehicles on roadways, and the officer’s credentials are never in question.

The use of unmarked cars for traffic stops has produced unintended, and very tragic, results. People have become so accustomed to seeing unmarked cars employed in traffic duty that they instinctively pull over for any vehicle behind them with flashing lights. The Mississippi case is only the most recent example of fake unmarked cars being used to victimize drivers. It has happened before, and, until those vehicles are completely pulled from traffic duty, it will happen again.

Questioning Upper Providence PD’s Speed-Trap Tactics

Unmarked cars aren’t the only deceptive practice that should be re-evaluated. Some police departments hide radar guns on “broken-down” cars to catch those driving a bit too fast. While maintaining traffic safety is important, going to those lengths foments anger and leads to the bigger question of “what’s next?” If they are willing to deceive to that extent just for traffic violations, what else will they do in the name of “justice?”

Worst of all are police—including those in unmarked units—sitting on private property (such as residential driveways and business parking lots) while staking out intersections or engaging in speed-trap stings.

The Upper Providence Police Department in Delaware County has perfected this practice, on Route 252 right off the U.S. 1 bypass. Police (sometimes in unmarked cars) sit in the service station next to the off-ramp, as well as in driveways up and down both 252 and Providence Road. While the revenue collected must be astounding, so is the massive ill-will generated by such tactics. (And no, this is not a self-serving column, as I have not been a victim of those traps).

That practice should, without question, be outlawed. It smacks of coercion and intimidation, and makes ordinary Americans begin to think they are living in a police state. Our police are supposed to “serve and protect” the people, but when they employ such tactics, respect turns to resentment.

Incredibly, in some areas, police utilizing private property have not asked the owner for permission. But would it matter if they did? How many people would say no? Very few, even if they disapprove, as many would feel intimidated and fear repercussions.

From a practical standpoint, do you really want to be the guy on whose property the cops sit when they bag everyone on your street?

What does it say then, that with all the major problems confronting police, many stoop to those levels of deception just to monetize routine traffic violations? Nailing otherwise law-abiding citizens for going a few miles per hour over the speed limit makes people view the police as nothing more than revenue-collectors, and lessens the respect that our men and women in blue deserve.

Making matters worse for the police is that speed limits are sometimes set deliberately lower than they should be so that more tickets can be issued, and often change with little or no warning, creating a money-making speed-trap. In some cases, speed limits on state highways—the majority of which are not high-speed roads, but streets that pass through leafy suburban neighborhoods—are set lower than permitted by state law. While the police are not responsible for setting speed limits, and are simply enforcing the law, they are the public face associated with hefty tickets, and they, fairly or not, bear the brunt of the people’s anger.

Should we have speed limits? Obviously. Should drivers who blow stop signs and red lights be cited, or at least issued a warning? Of course. But in a free society, the police should be doing these things with full transparency, free of deception and intimidation, utilizing only equipment and uniforms that unmistakably identify them.

Only then will the “us against them” mentality—on both sides—begin to fade away, and, infinitely more important, make routine traffic stops safer for both driver and officer.