Criminals posing as officers in news again

Published: Friday, January 21, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 21, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.
MINEOLA, N.Y. - As James Gottlieb drove home from his job as a bank manager, he saw flashing lights in his mirror and heard a siren. The father of three pulled over, and a man in military-style garb stepped out of the trailing vehicle.
Despite the lights and the clothes, the man was no police officer, police said.
The 49-year-old Gottlieb was shot twice and left to die on a Long Island street.
While the slaying Jan. 5 was extraordinary, the practice of criminals posing as cops is disturbingly common in the United States.
It is hardly a new phenomenon - Caryl Chessman was executed in California in 1960 as the "Red Light Bandit" who robbed or raped women after pulling up in a car with what looked like a police light - but it remains a perilous proposition for the public and officers on patrol.
"From time immemorial there have been cop wannabes," said Robert McCrie, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "But when someone uses the color of law enforcement to commit a crime, that is harmful to society."
During the past six weeks or so, authorities say, men have posed as police officers in North Andover, Mass.; Parma, Ohio; Scranton, Pa.; Leesville, La.; and Prince William County, Va. In some cases, impersonators robbed or raped their victims.
In the New York area, only days after Gottlieb's slaying, police arrested two men who allegedly impersonated cops while robbing two businessman during a traffic stop. The robbery was interrupted by a legitimate officer - already on alert because of the killing - who became suspicious when he did not recognize the phony cops.
Police said those suspects were not connected with the killing of Gottlieb, who may have been targeted for his bank office keys.
Long Island University terrorism expert Harvey Kushner said impersonators erode trust between the public and police officers and make traffic stops more dangerous for drivers and cops alike.
The FBI does not collect data on police impersonation cases, and experts say they cannot say for sure if the phenomenon is increasing. But police officials saidthe prevalence of "buff stores" and availability of police equipment on the Internet makes it easier to pose as law officers.
Last year, Colorado made impersonating a police officer a felony, increasing the penalties to two years in prison and a $100,000 fine. The toughened law followed the slaying of a 20-year-old college student by a police impostor in 2003. In New York, criminal impersonation is a felony that carries up to four years behind bars.
Detective Lt. Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the Nassau County police, which is investigating Gottlieb's killing, said that because of the crime, some drivers have become skittish when being pulled over by plainclothes officers in unmarked cars.
"What makes it difficult is we're used to people obeying, or complying, with our wishes to pull over," Smith said. "This makes it all the more difficult."
He said motorists who are leery about being stopped should put on their flashers and drive slowly to a populated or well-lit area. They can also call 911 from their cell phones and ask that a uniformed officer go to the scene as backup.
"We're sensitive to what's going on," Smith said. "Our officers realize that people are nervous. We want people to feel safe."

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