40

While traveling in the Southwest, I saw on two different occasions police cars that were painted all black, with no writing or logos on them. One was an older style of a police car, the other was a muscle car that looked brand new. They had all of the features of a police car, such as the lights near the windshield, bars for crashing at the front, antennae, but no markings anywhere, just black paint. The drivers also looked like the police.

Do these kinds of cars perform a special role? They seem useless as undercover vehicles.

Since they aren't marked, do I need to still follow their instructions, such as pulling over?

  • 19
    @Berend someone who is unfamiliar with these cars in the southwestern US is most likely to be a visitor. – phoog Jun 14 at 20:49
  • 53
    For me as tourist is relevant and important to be sure that those who Identify as people with the aim to enforce the law, actually ARE such, even if they don't look like... in east Europe is quite common to get robbed using similar tricks... – ΦXocę 웃 Пepeúpa ツ Jun 15 at 8:17
  • 7
    @Berend Seems like a case of programming in a boat : meta.stackexchange.com/questions/14470/… – Quora Feans Jun 15 at 12:36
  • 2
    @ΦXocę웃Пepeúpaツ - in the US, Law Enforcement Officers have to identify themselves before attempting to detain you. They can, however, gather evidence to use against you in a court of law without identifying themselves. This is usually done by wearing a uniform or displaying a badge and/or ID. This is not as important as the fact that LEOs are almost always armed (even off duty). If someone with a firearm tells you to do something (and is close enough to use it), it really does not matter whether they are a police officer or not. Your options are limited. – Dean F. Jun 15 at 15:20
  • 2
    @quora-feans Exactly what I was thinking; anything that exists at a certain location could be travel related for someone who is not from that location. – Berend Jun 15 at 17:38
54

These are called unmarked cars - sort of a compromise between a marked car and a fully undercover vehicle. The idea is that they're somewhat less easy to spot than a marked car, yet still have all the same equipment when it's needed.

They are very common, though the laws around their use may be evolving.

Yes, by law you do need to follow their instructions. If you are uncertain whether it's a genuine police car or an impostor, you can call 911 to verify.

| improve this answer | |
  • 9
    The law on unmarked cars can vary by state. In Georgia you have to pull over but may first proceed to a 'safe' location. Ref – G. Ann - SonarSource Team Jun 15 at 11:17
  • @PhilippNagel That's what I said in my answer: travel.stackexchange.com/a/157701/5038 – Ryan Jun 15 at 13:55
  • 1
    @Ryan somehow I missed it, I'll upvote, thanks for pointing it out! – PhilippNagel Jun 15 at 13:59
  • 1
    Unmarked cars rarely have all the extra hardware on the outside, as it obviously identifies it as a police vehicle, defeating the point. – BillThePlatypus Jun 15 at 15:11
  • 2
    I've heard the thing about calling 911 to verify elsewhere before. However there's a potential issue in the Southwestern US: Many places don't have cell phone signal, potentially for many miles. (Same thing in the Western US in general, not just the Southwest.) What's usually the rule or whatever in a situation like that? Just put the hazard lights on and drive 20 miles to the next gas station? – Panzercrisis Jun 15 at 23:43
46

I’m surprised nobody has mentioned what I believe to be the more common answer:

Once a police department is finished with a car that has become too old, the department often removes its markings and auctions it off.

If you don’t see any government markings anywhere (such as the license plate), I’d guess it’s no longer a police car (based on my experience in the southwestern USA), and the chances of the driver instructing you to do anything (i.e. impersonating a police officer) are very low.

But if someone in such a car did announce that they were a police officer, and they did not have an official uniform on with a badge, I'd call 911 and report them (since officers in an unmarked police car must be in full uniform, at least in certain states—I recommend researching the particular state you're in).

Retired 2006 Dodge Charger Police Car: Retired 2006 Dodge Charger Police Car

You might also be interested in these articles:

Thrillist says:

GovDeals and Public Surplus are the kings of online auctions and regularly liquidate cop cars for local municipalities. There are thousands of cars to choose from, ranging from mint-condition cherry rides that have barely been put through their paces, to those unfortunate many that have been smashed to hell and have potentially fatal amounts of bodily fluids staining the seats.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Police_vehicles_in_the_United_States_and_Canada#Skins/Paintjobs_and_Appearance:

Currently, in the United States and Canada, the paint scheme for each fleet is determined either by the individual agency or by uniform state legislation as in Minnesota. Usually, state laws exist that establish standards for police vehicle markings, and proscribe civilian vehicles from using certain markings or paint schemes as is the case in California.

Today, most fleet markings on patrol vehicles are created from reflective vinyl with an adhesive backing that is applied in a peel-and-stick manner. Colors chosen to represent the departments identity are typically chosen by the individual department, although, as noted above, some states have specific guidelines for color schemes and markings.

| improve this answer | |
  • 20
    They don't generally sell cars with the light bars still attached, though! – Michael Hampton Jun 15 at 3:34
  • 4
    This is very common where I live (Germany). In fact, in the last two decades, police have actually deliberately changed the paint job of their vehicles to make them easier to resell. They used to be a very distinctive beige-green paint job, but now they are stock silver, and the markings are actually put on with adhesive tape. – Jörg W Mittag Jun 15 at 4:51
  • 23
    So, what I take from this answer combined with the top-voted answer is that it's both very common for it to be police and very common for it to not be police. If that's true, that's... not super helpful. – NotThatGuy Jun 15 at 9:13
  • 5
    @MichaelHampton The question did not say “light bars” and instead mentioned light near the windshield, such as the small circular white search light that police cars often have. I see these remaining on former police cars frequently. – Ryan Jun 15 at 13:03
  • 4
    @Ryan I don't really mean that the information provided in the answers is not helpful, but rather that the fact that they may or may not be police is not helpful. Although the question and "guess" in this answer does make it seem more speculative, which casts some doubt on it, especially combined with the other reference-supported answer which kind of says the opposite (even if both can technically be true). Also, a more helpful answer would probably be one that combines both of these facts, and addresses how you should respond to the vehicle as a result of that. – NotThatGuy Jun 15 at 13:26
12

Police cars are frequently not painted with traditional police markings. They are typically used to blend into traffic or other roadside cars. That way, people who are speeding may be caught unaware as they speed past them. Cautious drivers may even slow down when seeing any car parked alongside the road. On some roads that are notorious for speeders, police departments may even park empty marked police cars to deter people from speeding. In any case, if you receive orders or directions from a uniformed police officer, or a police officer not in uniform who displays his badge or ID, you must obey them. Their mode of transportation is irrelevant.

| improve this answer | |
4

There is another case that may occur and that is UTC (Uniform Traffic control). Sometimes it is needed for a police officer to be part of a traffic plan in a private run project (even if publicly funded such as repaving or traffic light replacement). The cases I have been involved with the general contractor will hire a traffic control contractor who will hire traffic control supervisors, flaggers (I did this summers in college) and UTCs. The UTCs are off duty police officers wearing full uniform (including badge and gun) but without access to the department's car, so the traffic control contractor owns (or leases) mostly equipped police cars (they don't have prisoner retention facilities or departmental radios) that are provided to the UTCs. Depending on local rules some UTCs may not issue tickets (jurisdictional issues), but they can call for backup and they can arrest you. You should follow their instructions (as well as flaggers and traffic control supervisors) as failure to do so is a ticketable offence (failure to obey a traffic control officer, similar to failure to obey a stop sign).

Publicly run projects use on duty police for their UTCs with departmental cars.

| improve this answer | |
1

Another situation not yet mentioned would be cars used in motion picture and television production. I saw one on the road which I would guess was returning after a shoot, and had all of its insignia roughly scratched off and also had some moderately-small signs in the window saying "MOVIE PROP CAR". The signs were large enough to be read, but small enough not to obstruct the driver's vision. If a car is driving to a film or television shoot, I would expect that the crew might hold off on applying the insignia until they reach the location of the shoot, but if features like lights would need to stay on the car during stunt maneuvers, they would be securely attached at the shop before the shoot.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.