Impersonating a police officer

Amateur sleuths are often tempted to impersonate the police. Don’t do it! Or if your character insists, know what she’s risking.

In a recent Montana case, a man was charged with a felony, impersonating a public servant, after he called a nursing home, claimed he was a police officer, and sought information about an employee. According to The Missoulian, the woman who took all three calls got suspicious because of the caller’s manner–he was “stumbling and bumbling” on the first call, that the call appeared to be coming from a private number, and the nature of the call–he wanted to know if the employee was selling pills. She called local police, who obtained a voice recording of the real officer, who works for another department. She confirmed that was not the caller’s voice. Turned out that the subject of the calls had previously reported being threatened and harassed by a man, whom investigators then determined was the caller. He admitted making the calls, claiming he believed she was stealing pills from her employer. He used a real officer’s name to bolster his own credibility. Bail was set at 5,000.

Of course, local charges may vary, but virtually all jurisdictions make it a crime–felony or misdemeanor–to impersonate a police officer. Some also make it a crime to flash a fake badge or use flashing emergency lights.

The facts may warrant additional charges, e.g., breaking and entering or burglary, if the impersonator falsely identified himself as an officer to gain entry into a home with the intent to commit a crime.

If your fictional sleuth misidentifies herself in order to question suspects or witnesses, she could also be charged with obstructing or interfering with an investigation, or intimidating a witness.

Do it if you must — but know what’s at stake!

15 thoughts on “Impersonating a police officer

  1. I’ve heard a few stories here in California of licensed Private Investigators whose licenses were revoked for impersonating a police officer, too. PIs are required to be licensed in 45 of the 50 states (all except Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming), and I know the California Department of Consumer Affairs is quite aggressive in going after questionable conduct by licensees.

    So even if a detective character doesn’t end up facing criminal charges, she may well face an attempt by the state to suspend or revoke her license. No matter how good the money or how noble the client, I doubt very many investigators are willing to risk their freedom and their livelihood for the sake of a client.

  2. I worked as a private detective many years ago. I was told by a police officer if I was caught bending the rules (impersonating a police officer is breaking the rules), they would probably let me off once, but don’t let them catch me a second time. I decided not to bend or break anything. That was a lot easier. I played my role, got the information I needed, and was never caught by the folks I was watching.

  3. My P.I. is too short to be taken for a real officer, which is why he’ s a private investigator. Sean would never cross that ethical line, never mind the legal consequences if he was caught. For his chronicler it’s more of a challenge for him not to impersonate a sworn officer. Besides, he cultivates contacts among the several law enforcement agencies in the Twin Cities, which occasionally helps. Another writing challenge, however.

    • Carl, I think you’re on to something: honoring our characters’ limitations — both personal and legal — forces us to find other ways for them to do the job. Plus I like a morally upright sleuth!

  4. Good info to know, Leslie. Thanks for posting about this. I think, tho, that part of the fantasy of writing some of these books is the aspect of justice when the justice system fails, something that we can know and do something about in a book, but which we can’t often do in real life. So, I like the ones where a bit of justice is dealt out.

    • Di, you’re right. As readers, we want justice — which sometimes means stretching the truth. I’m in the Don Maass micro-tension camp, and I see the detective/amateur sleuth’s struggle against opposing forces as a way to increase the micro tension and keep us turning the pages. Which is, always, the bottom line! Thanks for your comment!

    • Good point, Marguerite: what would it take for your character to take such a high personal risk. Important question for writers to ask, in considering character motivation. Thanks for the comment!

  5. I am a private investigator as well as a mystery author, and I can pretty much guarantee you that if I was caught impersonating ANY official (meaning people working for cities/counties/natl govt as well as law enforcement), I’d “get my ticket punched” (PI lingo for having your license revoked). It takes more creativity to come up with a persona who is not an official and get the information you’re seeking, but a good PI can do it. PIs have no special powers to make people do anything, so we need to be charming instead. That’s the real challenge to investigation work–finding legal ways to get the information we need. I’m writing a little book now about what it’s really like to do investigation work.

    • Excellent — let us know when your book is available!

      And you are absolutely right about the creativity required to do things right — and doesn’t that make a story more compelling? And less cliched.

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