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Fake police gear 'scary' to those who wear badge

RUSKIN — The shooting was terrifying enough.

Two brothers killed and four others critically injured early Thanksgiving Day while they played cards on the front porch. A suspect on the loose for almost a week. A motive described by the sheriff as a misplaced act of vengeance.

But what made a horrible crime even more troubling was the clothing authorities said 39-year-old Michael Keetley wore when he opened fire: a black T-shirt or vest, with "SHERIFF" in big letters across the front.

Keetley was accused Thursday of two murders and four attempted murders. But if officials decide to add a charge of impersonating an officer, Keetley will join 13 other similar cases in Hillsborough this year.

"It's scary," said Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon. Not just for the public, but for deputies, too, he said. "It undermines the validity of a real law enforcement officer."

Wearing law enforcement gear is not illegal. You can buy FBI hats at kiosks at the mall and tactical clothing at military surplus stores.

Retired law enforcement vehicles are often sold at auction with many of the tactical tools still attached, like special bumpers or spotlights.

EBay sells a black shirt with "SHERIFF" across the front for $11.99 plus shipping.

It's only when someone identifies him or herself as law enforcement or gives an official directive that the action could become a felony.

The guidelines were clarified in 2005, when the Florida Supreme Court overturned a law used to prosecute a Pinellas County woman for wearing a Sheriff's Office T-shirt.

The lawyer who fought the case, John Trevena, called it a matter of free speech.

"Many individuals are trying to show support for the agency in the same way as you see individuals wearing sports jerseys for their favorite teams or players," Trevena said.

Nevertheless, Trevena said he advises against wearing police gear.

"If you're near a crime scene as an individual and a victim or a witness sees you wearing those items, they may approach you and ask you to intervene," Trevena said. "That's a position you don't want to be in."

The line between freedom of expression and officer imitation can be hazy.

After some customers crossed that line years ago, store owner Kevin Perkins, of Headquarters Military Surplus on Skipper Road, stopped selling law enforcement T-shirts.

"We don't want to be associated with that, with the possibility of abuse," Perkins said.

In the '90s, Perkins said he sold a few "SHERIFF" shirts to a group of kids. The next day, a newspaper reported that the same kids had broken into a house pretending to be cops, Perkins remembered.

Now Perkins sells mostly innocuous camouflage stuff.

Ilona Pavic, of Army Clothing Connection on Nebraska Avenue, said she does carry the labeled clothing, but it's not a top seller.

"Usually just at Halloween," she said.

But popular or not, the gear's mere existence means deputies and police officers must take extra care to ensure citizens believe they're who they say they are, Hillsborough's McKinnon said.

He brought up a case from less than three months ago, when authorities say a man posing as an officer pulled over a woman on Bayshore Boulevard, handcuffed her and raped her in a nearby parking lot.

Luis Marcelo Munuzuri-Harris is now awaiting trial on felony charges.

McKinnon said a marked car will usually accompany any off-duty or unmarked unit when stopping a citizen. And if deputies are not in full uniform, they'll always have a badge and corresponding identification card.

"It's our responsibility to make sure there is no doubt," McKinnon said. "We don't want any of that, 'Is he real or not?' We don't want a confrontation based on doubt."

Tampa police officers on duty but not in uniform always wear tactical vests and numbered badges, said spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

Anyone suspicious of a deputy or officer can call 911 to ask that an additional unit respond, both McKinnon and Davis said.

"There's nothing wrong with that," Davis said. But she noted drivers should crack their windows and let officers know that they're calling dispatch. "Officers have to be concerned about their safety as well."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Fake police gear 'scary' to those who wear badge 12/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 4, 2010 9:01pm]
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