Some people react to a global pandemic by hoarding toilet paper. Some bake bread or binge Netflix or create silly videos. And some, it turns out, put on fake uniforms, pretend to be police officers and harass people about Colorado’s stay-at-home order.
Authorities have identified at least six different incidents of police impersonators along the Front Range in the last two weeks, with many of the imposters stopping and questioning drivers about why they’re out and about during the state’s stay-at-home order, which prohibits nonessential travel.
This uptick in police impersonators is likely driven by the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, a need to exercise some control over uncertain circumstances and perhaps, a predisposition among imposters towards authoritarianism, experts said. Some, authorities suspect, are just your run-of-the-mill scammers taking advantage of unprecedented times.
“This is a period of enormous stress,” said Harvey Milkman, a emeritus professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “And when people are under stress and it passes their limit, judgment starts to deteriorate, and it can manifest in a lot of ways. People can rationalize it and think they’re doing something for the benefit of the community. There is a need to feel we are not helpless right now.”
Real police say they’re not conducting stay-at-home order traffic stops, and some agencies aren’t using unmarked cars for traffic enforcement at all during the coronavirus pandemic. The imposters, who have been reported in Erie, Greeley, Aurora, Weld County and Fort Collins seem to behave in similar ways.
In several recent cases, witnesses have described being stopped by solitary men, who are dressed in dark or uniform-like clothing. Some imposters have driven vehicles equipped with emergency lights. Typically, they question drivers and then let them go. In Erie, a man ordered a woman to drive home and then followed her there before leaving, according to the Erie Police Department.
Law enforcement are searching for the impersonators; none had been arrested as of Thursday. Drivers should pay extra attention when being pulled over, authorities warned.
“If you’re not sure, definitely call 911 to see if it’s a legitimate stop,” said Weld County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Joe Moylan. “We don’t typically use unmarked cars. And we’re definitely not doing it now.”
Some of the impersonators might be looking for drivers’ personal information, like what can be found on a license and insurance paperwork, he said, adding that the suspect in Weld County has stopped at least two drivers.
“You could do a significant amount of damage, for fraud or showing up to people’s houses,” Moylan said. “Our guy isn’t doing that yet. We suspect he’s kind of on a power trip.”
That makes sense, said Brett King, a senior instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“People are drawn to social roles of authority,” he said. “That gives us a sense of control when sometimes other things don’t make sense.”
Anonymity can also free people to take actions they wouldn’t otherwise take, he said. Even just the act of putting on a fake uniform and assuming a role as a police officer can grant some sense of anonymity to the imposter, he said. Going out at night, under the cover of darkness, or with a group, as was reported in Greeley, can have the same impact, he said.
“In a state of anonymity, we find those normal inhibitions against deviant behavior just kind of shut up a little bit, they just quiet down,” he said.
Another motivator could be boredom and isolation, he said, as much of the state is shut down during the stay-at-home order.
Milkman called the impersonators’ actions a “misguided manifestation of stress,” and suggested several ways that people can try to manage and reduce the stress caused by the pandemic that are not criminal or harmful.
Connecting with other people is key, he said, whether by just talking with friends or by volunteering to help others. Such connections reduce stress and up resiliency for both parties, he said.
“It really does improve your mood and your sense of hope and your sense of strength when you connect with others,” he said. “And we have to do it virtually right now, but that’s OK.”
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