There have been three different cases of people accused of impersonating Hillsborough County deputies in the past three months. That’s why Sheriff Chad Chronister and his agency filmed YouTube videos in English and Spanish to warn the public how to spot a fake law enforcement officer.
When in doubt, the sheriff said, call 911.
“If your gut tells you someone in plainclothes is fake, call 911 to confirm their identity,” Chronister said in the video.
In two of those cases, the alleged impersonators were caught after trying to pull over real deputies.
Here’s what the Sheriff’s Office warned the public to watch out for:
• Familiarize yourself with the uniforms of your local law enforcement agencies.
The most common uniform for a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy is a white dress shirt with green slacks and black shoes. Deputies’ badges are five-pointed stars with the state of Florida in the center. Their name will be written on a gold bar on their dress shirt.
Most Pasco County Sheriff’s Office deputies wear green, military-style BDUs, or battle dress uniforms.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office deputies wear green dress shirts and green pants.
Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa Police Department officers wear dark blue dress shirts and slacks.
Florida Highway Patrol troopers wear tan dress shirts and pants.
But every agency has different uniforms for different jobs. Specialized units, such as canine officers, wear military-style uniforms.
• Ask for the deputy’s credentials. Real law enforcement officers — even those in civilian clothing — will be able to give you a badge number that you can relay to a 911 dispatcher to verify that you are talking to a real deputy.
• Look at the utility belt. Does it have several pieces of equipment and pouches? Or does it only hold a gun? Real law enforcement officers will have everything from handcuffs to non-lethal weapons such as pepper spray or a Taser.
• Be wary if a vehicle that looks old or is in poor condition attempts to pull you over.
• If you’re being pulled over by a car that you find suspicious and you feel unsafe, turn on your hazard lights, reduce your speed and keep driving until you reach a well-lit area. Then call 911 and confirm you have been pulled over by a real law enforcement officer.
The Sheriff’s Office noted these three recent incidents were people were accused of impersonating one of its own deputies:
• April 17: Matthew Joseph Erris, 26, had installed flashing red and blue emergency lights onto his Chevy Trailblazer SUV and is accused of attempting to pull over a driver.
• July 4: Barry Hastings Jr., 35, pulled over a driver on Interstate 4 using a black Ford Crown Victoria similar to the ones used by law enforcement agencies. It was outfitted with emergency lights and sirens similar to what the Sheriff’s Office uses, the agency said.
The driver turned out to be an off-duty Lee County Sheriff’s deputy.
The deputy asked Hastings for his credentials. Hastings replied that they were at the office. He was arrested.
• July 22: Travis Strickland, 30, showed a fake badge and a real handgun to a group that wanted him to leave a rural property in Dover, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Strickland told them he was an undercover narcotics officer, according to the agency, then started loading a shotgun while pointed at the witnesses.
They called 911 and he was arrested.
Contact Amanda Zhou at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @AmondoZhou