How to Spot Undercover Cops and Unmarked Police Cars

How to tell if a fake police car is pulling me over?

It’s important to stop if a cop signals you to pull over, but with many undercover vehicles on the road it’s easy for crooks to impersonate legitimate officers. The following tips will help you decide if the car is a genuine vehicle or fake police car – and how to stay on the right side of the law if you can’t decide.


Covert Crown Victoria: Spotting the cues

While this may look like a plain Crown Victoria, the following pieces of equipment quickly ID this as a fully-prepared and in-service 2009 Police Interceptor: Steel wheels with chrome center hubcaps Bars between front and rear seats to keep the bad guys in their place Police antenna on trunk lid

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“Exempt” License Plate

By Texas law, certain government vehicles can be registered using an exempt fee status. You could recognize these license plates by looking for the word “EXEMPT” either on top in red or at the bottom of the plate in navy blue. So if the plate has this word, then it’s highly likely this is either a cop car or other county/city/state government type vehicle.

Hear Mark Thiessen talk about why “exempt” license plates are the easiest way to spot an undercover cop car:

What should I do if I’m not sure if it is genuine police officers trying to stop me?

Advice from the many police forces is simple – don’t stop if you have genuine concerns!

Don’t panic and speed off, though. Just switch on your hazard lights to indicate you’ve acknowledged the vehicle and drive on at reduced speed until you can find a well-lit and populated location.

Keep your doors locked and ensure you have easy access to a mobile phone if safe to do so. Genuine officers will understand what is going on and should follow you in a relaxed and patient manner.

Extra Mirrors?

Nope. These strange bubble, mirror-like objects that are often on the front of police windshields are actually spotlights. Powered by the car’s system, these lights can shine almost endlessly. Officers could use them from inside the car and without even rolling down the window. While you may occasionally still see them on decommissioned cop cars, these extra spotlights on the front of a car along with the previous mentioned criterias all serve as a strong sign that you’re being followed by a cop.

How to spot an unmarked police car

There are roughly 18,000 police agencies in the United States, and they use all kinds of vehicles for all kinds of purposes, from Dodge Chargers meant to catch speeders to police semi-trucks in Florida, to public relations vehicles like this hot-pink breast cancer awareness Explorer my local 5-0 have been driving lately. So spotting an unmarked police vehicle is a crapshoot, but there are some characteristics that might tip you off to an unmarked police cruiser.


The license plates

Unmarked police cars might sport municipal or exempt tags, but they don’t necessarily have to outwardly indicate their status on their plates. They might also be missing the registration stickers that some states require. This varies depending on the department. It’s not going to matter much when they’re pulling you over anyway.


The make and model

It used to be easier to spot an unmarked police car—just look for the black Crown Victoria—but these days, police officers could be driving anything from pick-up trucks to federal government subsidized mini-tanks. Still, the most popular police vehicles overall in the United States and Canada are:

  • 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe PPV (RWD and 4WD)
  • 2021 Dodge Charger Pursuit (AWD and RWD)
  • 2021 Dodge Durango Pursuit
  • 2020 Ford Police Interceptor Utility (based on the 2020 Ford Explorer)
  • 2021 Ford F-150 Police Responder

It’s fair to assume that these five kinds of cars are the ones police are most likely to be driving around unmarked.


Certain police equipment

Unmarked police car often sport the same kind of extra gear that regular police cars have. That can mean lights on the grill or side-mirrors, dark tints on the windows, and a cage-like “push bumper” over the front bumper. Older cop cars might have a ton of antennae as well, although technology has generally made these kind of arrays unnecessary.


How to spot an undercover cop

According to this paper published by the Stanford Law Review, police generally engage in undercover operations when they are investigating crimes that involve “secretive, complex, and consensual activities.” Crimes like the manufacturer of meth, bribery, and dogfighting. Cops infiltrate political demonstrations and organizations too—maybe to provide unobtrusive protection in a situation where a uniform would cause anger or maybe to act as agent provocateurs—it depends on who you ask.


Infiltrators of political events or organizations might be experienced and talented super-cops in deep cover, or they might be these fake Hasidic Jews who weren’t fooling anyone. There are many tales of activists reporting obvious cops attending protests. Here are some tips for how you might spot them.

  • Odd-couples: There’s a reason so many buddy-cop movies are based on partners who are opposites—it actually happens. So if you see a couple of people who don’t look like they should be together, say with a big age or cultural difference between them, it could indicate narcs in the ranks.
  • Awkward and out-of-place: It’s definitely not foolproof, but an out-of-context looking person—say a crew-cut 40 year old standing around at a heavy metal show—could be a law enforcement officer. (Or they could be an old guy who likes loud music.)
  • Inappropriate questions: Keep your guard up when talking to strangers in a situation that might draw undercover cops. If the new guy at the political meeting starts asking when the bomb-throwing starts, he might be a cop. Or he might be discouraging bomb-throwing. It’s pretty murky.


You can also pay attention to how they look. None of these outward signs are surefire cop-indicators, but they should cause you to put your guard up a bit:

  • Haircuts: Cops often have more exacting grooming standards than regular people, so a careful, short haircut could be a sign of undercover police.
  • Sports hoodies: Some activists report that cops like wearing sports-oriented hoodies to protests where hardcore protesters generally don’t advertise their love of the Yankees through their clothing.
  • Cargo pants: Cops need to carry a bunch of equipment, and so often sport cargo style shorts with lots of pockets for night-sticks and tasers.
  • Shoes: Look out for hiking boots or military-style shoes, especially if paired with the aforementioned sports-themed jersey, a look only a cop would love.


Now You Know

Now you know how to spot an unmarked police car. Use your knowledge wisely.

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