Unmarked police cruisers are not a scam to catch you!

I recently saw an advertisement pop up on my Facebook timeline comparing European and “American” police vehicles. I tried to post a comment explaining some of the problems with the image and that people shouldn’t buy into it and the person who shared the image deleted it. Well, some people don’t like hearing the truth, but considering how many people actually believe this nonsense, I’m going to blog about it instead.

The image was this, for reference:

Police Vehicles Comparison

Expressing how completely false this image is takes a lot of detail, and I’m going to cover all of it.

Americans are not alone in using unmarked vehicles.

Right off the bat, the most balatantly obvious thing that makes this image just plain stupid is the fact that European police departments use unmarked police vehicles too. This doesn’t even require much detail to cover it, here’s proof:

United Kingdom police officer standing next to unmarked police cruiser

You can even view more images of this cruiser, including an image of that same officer and same vehicle conducting a traffic stop in the article where I got this image from: How To Spot One Of The Latest Unmarked Police Cars

Unmarked vehicles are primarily used for other purposes.

This fallacy of people thinking that police are only out to make money off of people or that they have quotas to fill is really old and really annoying. These unmarked vehicles, while used for traffic monitoring in some places, were not created for traffic units. They were created for a variety of other purposes that are all completely legitimate purposes that an officer would want to have an unmarked cruiser.

  • The officer needs to conduct surveillance on a suspected criminal that requires sitting in their vehicle observing transactions, homes, or on-street activities (like following them to another location). These situations require anonymity - you wouldn’t want to be doing any of this in a marked cruiser because they’ll immediately know something’s wrong.
  • Some officers are not driving around in the vehicle while performing normal street police duties. For example, a detective driving out to a residence to serve a warrant is unlikely to take a marked police cruiser to get there - that’s just not necessary and others shouldn’t expect to be able to flag them down for help while they are performing other, more specific tasks.
  • Some officers outfit personal vehicles or are provided government vehicles for personal use while they are off-duty but on-call and might at any moment be required to be somewhere in a hurry (think of forensics units).

SOP often forbids traffic stops in unmarked vehicles.

Contrary to the image I referenced above of the UK officer conducting a traffic stop in their unmarked vehicle, the vast majority of departments in the United States and possibly elsewhere in the world explicitly forbid officers from conducting traffic stops in an unmarked vehicle. Why? Because the vehicle is unmarked. That’s a huge safety concern because the person being stopped cannot accurately determine whether or not the vehicle attempting to stop them is a legitimate police officer or just someone with lights in their car. Even in jurisdictions that allow these kinds of traffic stops, motorists are still encouraged to not stop immediately, but instead call 911 to verify that the car behind them is indeed a police officer.

In those jurisdictions that do forbid traffic stops like these, standard operating procedure tells the officer to call into dispatch and request a marked vehicle to assist. The marked vehicle is the vehicle which will conduct the actual traffic stop for the unmarked officer, who should remain behind the marked vehicle whenever possible (obviously there are some exceptions, like when in a pursuit, where the unmarked cruiser might end up in front for some reason).

Most police cruisers aren’t unmarked cruisers.

It’s easy to take a picture of a good example and a picture of a bad example and slap some labels on them. That doesn’t make a good comparison. The vast majority of police cruisers in the United States are indeed marked correctly and easily identifiable as police cruisers, usually painted in black and white and with very large text on the sides, front, and back that give it away.

Some states, like Washington, don’t even allow unmarked vehicles to be used on the streets for normal police duties. One citizen in Washington took video of himself stopping an officer for breaking this law. That’s not to say there aren’t some departments somewhere in the United States that do use unmarked vehicles for their traffic units, but trying to apply that to the entire country is unfair. We’re talking about only a handful of departments that do that in the thousands of departments that exist across this country.

Consider the source!

You might have noticed that at the very beginning of this article I called the image an “advertisement.” Why did I do that? Well, to know you have to look at who posted the image originally:

Escort Inc

Can you guess what Escort Inc specializes in? That’s right, they make radar detectors. That can’t possibly be a business that would in any way give them a conflict of interest in providing information about police, right? I mean, they definitely don’t profit at all from people on the Internet reading and believing the nonsense they’re spreading… Always consider the source of who’s posting something, because if they have anything to gain from it, you need to take it with a very fine grain of salt. It might not be true. This image they’ve created certainly isn’t.