It's never been easier to be a cop - all it takes is a credit card and a computer.
Wannabe police can buy uniforms, badges, nightsticks, even rank on the Internet, or maybe from a friendly store that stocks police duds. While some impersonators buy the products as a gag, others are using it to fool Jack or Jill into thinking he or she is about to be arrested or questioned. And occasionally, those fake badges are part of a robbery scheme or worse - in Colorado a young coed was raped and murdered after stopping for some flashing blue lights.
Law-enforcement officials worry that the public will lose respect for the police if no one can trust Officer Bob. And in the wake of 9/11, there are also concerns that terrorists may pose as authorities to infiltrate secure areas. The problem is attracting the attention of both local and national officials.
"It's something that strikes a chord in people. Everyone likes to think the police are who they say they are, and it becomes disquieting if they are not," says Joseph Estey, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the police chief of Hartford, Vt.
Last week, New York's public advocate called for tougher laws in the Big Apple, which currently prescribes a fine of $100 - less than a parking ticket - and not more than 60 days in jail for unlawful use of uniforms or emblems. "I'm calling for the state to increase penalties for the sale of police uniforms," says Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate, who points out that under current state law the sale is considered a misdemeanor.
Last year, both Arizona and Colorado made it a felony to impersonate police officers. And Congress may soon be looking at new legislation that would regulate the sale of fake badges.
Currently, it doesn't take much work to look like the law. Chief Estey point out that anyone can buy a flashing yellow light and swap the lens for a blue one. "You can go to Kmart, buy a dark uniform often worn by maintenance workers, add a dark tie and patch, and look like a police officer," he says.
Police patches can be purchased on the Internet at such sites as Davespatches.com, which says its unloading duplicates from a collection of 10,000 patches. On eBay, anyone wanting to become a NYPD police inspector or a cop from Gilroy, Calif., can buy a minibadge for $6.99.
Ms. Gotbaum estimates the total cost from police hat to pepper spray costs about $500.
Dave Glettner of Dave's Patches says many of his customers are collectors or even police officers. Recently, he says it has become more difficult to sell his products on eBay, which he says won't allow badges. He is wary of group sales, and, cognizant of 9/11 issues, he has refunded money to people "whose name sounded a little too fishy."
On eBay, the auction house posts a warning that it's a felony to impersonate an officer. "Not a get-out-of-jail privilege," says the warning.
Five years ago, Congress tried to cut down on the sale of such paraphernalia by passing new legislation. But Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York says, "There are loopholes in the bill so big you can drive a truck through them."
For example, the legislation includes exemptions for theatrical purposes so shows such as "NYPD Blue" and "CSI" can look realistic. There is also an exemption for collectors like Mr. Glettner.
"But the biggest exemption is for recreational use," says Representative Weiner. "When you go on the Internet and click to buy, you agree that the purchase is for recreational use, which eliminates legal liability."
Weiner tried to tighten the rules at the end of last year. Now, he's hoping to get his legislation through this year.
One issue is that many buyers of badges are police officers themselves. They buy the replicas, which are slightly smaller, because the punishment for losing a city-issued badge can be several days' pay. "It does make sense to have an exemption for the officers," says Weiner, who hasn't figured out how to do this without adding significantly to the paperwork.
Despite attempts to try to stem the tide, people keep posing as police officers. Last month, on Long Island, there were two separate robberies, one of which included a murder, by men posing as police officers. In Arizona late last year, there was a spate of robberies, as well as inappropriate touching of a motorist, by fake cops.
But in a possible warning to other wannabes, in December a man who was allegedly impersonating a police officer in Parma, Ohio, pulled over a woman supposedly for driving erratically. But the woman was a detective who called for backup.
Now, the man, Michael Gustafson, faces five counts ranging from impersonating a police officer to receiving stolen property. He could not be reached for comment, but news reports quoted him as saying he was just trying to pull over an erratic driver.