Is it just me, or was this weird?
April 12, 2014 7:59 PM   Subscribe

I was out walking on a bike path near my house just now (after dark) and encountered someone driving an unmarked SUV who claimed to be a police officer. I took him at his word, but am now rethinking it and slightly freaked out. Was this within the realm of normal cop behavior?

I live right next to a bike path that goes through a large city. The trail is fairly well-used, even at night, and I often go for a short walk in the evening. I'm never too far from houses, but there is a stretch that is separated from houses and apartments by a large field.

I was in this area when I saw a car approaching. As I mentioned, it was after dark, they had their headlights on, and were very slowly crawling along the trail. I figured it was either a police car (I've seen marked police cars on the trail on several occasions), or else someone who had inadvertently driven onto the no-cars-allowed trail and was now lost (which I have also encountered). I had stepped off of the trail and was standing in the grass alongside waiting for them to go past.

The car finally pulled up alongside me and I saw that it was a kind of junky-looking SUV. I was on the passenger side. The driver, who was alone, stopped the car and just looked at me through the open window. I was thinking, okay, is he lost and going to ask for directions? wtf?? I should also mention that the car was between me and civilization (there were woods behind me).

I had started walking away when he called out, "Are you all right?" Annoyed and a little freaked out, I snorted and said, "Are you all right?" in a really snotty way and continued to walk off, towards the rear of his vehicle. He called out, "I'm the police." I immediately thought oh shit, I just gave a cop a bunch of attitude, and so stopped and called "Oh, okay!" He repeated that he was the police, and had turned his headlights on so as not to scare me.

At that point, not knowing what to believe and not happy with any of the options, I think I yelled something like "Oh, okay!" again and started walking quickly away, towards my house (about five minutes away). The car continued on in the opposite direction. As I was leaving the trail to head up the road towards my house, I noticed the car coming back up the trail. I could kick myself for doing this, but I continued right on up to my front door and went in. I feel like I should have taken a detour of some kind, in case the guy really was a creepy creepster and could now see me headed into my house.

After thinking about it for a while, I called the police non-emergency line and asked if they knew if there were any unmarked police cars out on the trail. The dispatcher said that she was not privy to that information, and in the future I should ask for a badge number.

I hope this question is not too Chatfilter-y, but I guess I'm wondering if it's in the realm of possibility for an actual police officer to do something like this. I guess it would make sense for him to be driving along slowly with the window down if, for instance, he was trying to catch someone in the act of smoking pot or something. But then why would he stop the car right alongside me as I'm clearly trying to get back onto the trail and walk off, and stare at me without saying anything?

At no point did my hackles go up Gift-of-Fear-style or anything--I was mostly just thinking that it was bizarre. I also realize that it was a fairly innocuous interaction. But the context kind of freaks me out--like if this was not an actual cop, then eek. My experience with the police is thankfully very limited, so I hope none of this seems laughably naïve. Oh, and if it matters, I'm female.
posted by whistle pig to Human Relations (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You did the right thing by calling and asking about it. If you're getting strange vibes and the car didn't seem like a police car, getting back to safety is the smart thing to do, not to prolong the encounter by asking for a badge number.

If I were you, I'd call back and ask to have a shift supervisor/commander on duty call you back about this. The police take people impersonating officers very seriously, and officers should be reporting where they were on their nightly patrols. In addition, you can explain why you were skeeved out by the encounter and maybe the cops will alter their behavior and identify themselves more clearly during future encounters when it's dark.
posted by antonymous at 8:14 PM on April 12, 2014 [24 favorites]

Holy shit, my hair is standing on end and my eyes are watering after reading this. I don't know if you're aware, but it's actually incredibly common for creepers to impersonate police officers. Ted Bundy level creepers.

Any police officer worth their salt would know that. And would not freak out a woman walking alone on a wooded trail at night.

Always trust your instincts.
posted by quincunx at 8:16 PM on April 12, 2014 [20 favorites]

The dispatcher gave you shitty advice.

Stop in and talk to the police in person tomorrow. They should increase patrols in the area. I kinda doubt the guy in the ratty SUV was a cop. Sorry.

RIGHT NOW - write down every detail you can remember. - type of car, paint color, any dings or faded paint, what the man looked like, time of day, etc., etc..

Thank you for putting the effort in to report this appropriately!

I also had success recently calling my city council person's office and talking to the person who handles the parks in our district when we had a problem there. Your city council person's office will likely get action (or just a reasonable explanation made to you, if this really was a police officer) in a timely and appropriate manner.

Good luck and thank you!!
posted by jbenben at 8:17 PM on April 12, 2014 [21 favorites]

Come to think of it, yeah, you should call back tonight and ask to speak to the shift commander.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 8:19 PM on April 12, 2014 [10 favorites]

That is super-creepy. I'm with jbenben, write down everything you can remember, then either call back and talk to the shift commander.

I'm more thinking the driver was looking to buy drugs or something, in a really inept way, but... it's really creepy. And I don't believe for one second he was really a cop.
posted by sarcasticah at 8:34 PM on April 12, 2014

The two details that stand out to me as being pretty suspicious are:

1. A junky-looking SUV. Maybe it's just me, but I've seen a lot of police vehicles and I'm not sure I've ever seen cops riding around in a junky SUV. Even the unmarked ones are usually pretty new and ship-shape or at least very well cared for.

2. I've never heard a police officer say "I'm the police." I heard "I'm a police officer," "I'm an officer," "Police," and "We're the police," but never "I'm the police."

Small things, but enough that I would have really questioned them myself. I don't think you're out of line at all to be suspicious. I would follow the above advice about talking to the actual police about this.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:37 PM on April 12, 2014 [23 favorites]

I agree above to talk to the shift commander and clarify if this was or wasn't a real officer. If it wasn't, they need to bring the hammer down on that area and you need to provide a complete description of everything you remember.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:41 PM on April 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Please call the police and give them as full a description of your encounter and the vehicle as you can. If it was, in fact, an on-duty officer then... no harm done. If it wasn't, then hopefully they get a jump on someone who's definitely looking to do something extra bad.
posted by kavasa at 8:45 PM on April 12, 2014

Also, a lot of people are too hesitant to call the emergency line. I would only call the non-emergency line for stuff that is super extra obviously not an emergency. The call center personnel are old pros (or will very quickly become old pros) at weeding out the calls that don't need attention. With stuff like this just call 911 and let the 911 and police personnel decide if it's something they want to address immediately or not.
posted by kavasa at 8:49 PM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Since you are freaked out that he saw where you live, calling 911 and having a police cruiser in front of your house as you make a statement will act as an extra deterrent if the guy is still hanging around the neighborhood.

posted by jbenben at 8:51 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone--I'm calling the police back. I'm super-tired tonight, so if I don't add an update tonight will do so tomorrow.
posted by whistle pig at 9:12 PM on April 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Five bucks says he's one of those non-LEO knuckleheads who take it upon themselves to "patrol" the neighborhood -- a wanna-be cop or cop fan boi.
posted by nacho fries at 9:21 PM on April 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I asked my retired police officer husband who says the guy was probably not a cop. If an officer is in plainclothes, he wouldn't identify himself as an officer. And if he did identify himself for whatever reason, he wouldn't have been so creepy about it.

He says they won't be able to do much without more identifying info, the license or make/model, etc., but to certainly report it if you see the car again and are able to get the license.

Take care. Make sure your doors and windows are locked and your cell phone is charged. And maybe vary your daily routine for a while if you can.
posted by Beti at 12:45 AM on April 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

"and stare at me without saying anything?"

Sounds like it was after dark and since the car stopped next to you it typically takes the driver a few secs to clearly see the person/face who is standing in the dark. It might read like a long time/staring in such a situation.
The driver must have seen you driving up to you (and acknowledged that with the lights comment - "had turned his headlights on so as not to scare me") but maybe he was not clear if you were male or female or even a person he knew/was looking for?

Anyway, you did everything right, including calling the police. You are safe now and that's the most important thing.
posted by travelwithcats at 4:23 AM on April 13, 2014

These days, it's gotten pretty difficult determining what "normal" cop behavior is. You were right to call it in, though. Your description certainly doesn't sound normal.

The dispatcher said that she was not privy to that information, and in the future I should ask for a badge number.

I'd be very wary about asking a stranger in an unmarked vehicle for a badge number, alone and at night. That just sounds like the opening scene of a tv crime drama.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:29 AM on April 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I am finally reading The Gift of Fear that everyone recommends on AskMefi (and that you mentioned), and you did EVERYTHING right.

You trusted your instincts, you let him know you were not someone to be messed with (Are YOU alright?), and you immediately went to a safe place.

Give yourself a high five and a pat on the back for being a trust-your-gut badass!

Hopefully after all your adrenalin dies down, you can feel buoyed and empowered by the fact that you now know: when shit goes down, you can trust yourself to make the right split-second decisions.

Do not even feel bad for mouthing off. Even if he was a cop (which I HIGHLY DOUBT), you did ZERO, absolutely NOTHING WRONG here. You did EVERYTHING RIGHT.

We're socialized to think that being rude is some great breach of the social contract. Au contraire (stalking women at night on trails in beat-up SUVs is a MUCH GREATER BREACH OF THE SOCIAL CONTRACT). When you get that freak-out feeling, being rude is survival. I am renaming you ACE WHISTLE PIG. BOOMSHAKALAKA!
posted by whimsicalnymph at 7:31 AM on April 13, 2014 [14 favorites]

His telling you he'd turned the lights on "in order not to scare you" falls into The Gift of Fear's examples of predators offering TMI.
posted by brujita at 9:46 AM on April 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I had a similar experience in 2001 or 2002 in Hamilton, ON. The differences being that it was still light out (right around sunset), I was standing on the street outside of my apartment (waiting for the cab I'd called), and it was a junky sedan and not an SUV.

The guy pulled up, asked me (through the passenger window, which was closest to me) if I was alright, told me that he was a cop, and kind of gestured to the laptop computer that he had mounted below the dash. I told him that I was fine and he drove on. My cab came, I had fun with friends, and I went home without getting Bundied.

I still have my doubts that the guy was actually a cop, but if he were a rapist/kidnapper seemed to have been going about it in a really bumbling way. I always figured that if he was a cop, he was on some kind of prostitution patrol and got the wrong idea about a single, young, black woman standing by the side of the street. Unlike you, I wasn't smart enough to follow up with a call to the actual cops about it -- I'm really curious for your update to hear whether this is something that cops actually do, because it does seem kind of dumb.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:07 AM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Around here, any police patrols of bike/walking paths use marked cars and they go out of their way to make sure you see them. It's primarily a show of police presence for both the tax payers and anyone with bad intentions. And any unmarked cars are in tip-top shape since they need to be absolutely reliable and safe. Also, they should have plates of some kind you can use to identify them (here marked cars have special plates, unmarked have regular NY state ones). You were right to question this guy's presence and motive.
posted by tommasz at 11:15 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you invested on a can of pepper spray?

The comment from the cop-spouse who said an off-duty cop would not have ID'd himself sounds right to me, but it's possible he was a decoy trolling for drugs or sex.

I have seen cops stare down people in various situations, eg being very amorous, to encourage them to move on, not I don't think they would do it out of uniform in an unmarked car.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:24 AM on April 13, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks again for all of your advice and encouragement that this was weird and probably not a cop. Unfortunately, I don't have a very interesting update. Last night I called the police back again and was told I could fill out a report, which I did. I don't have any other info. I do have a neighbor who is very active in our neighborhood, routinely talks to our police liaison, etc., and so I think I'm going to share my little tale with her and see if that gets any information.

I'm glad I did the right thing by getting the hell away from the situation, but if I ever encounter any other weirdness involving a car I hope I'll have the presence of mind to get the license number. And also not to stand on the side of the trail that will put the car between me and other people, waiting for it to creep by. And as much as I hate to, I'm going to avoid the trail at night for the foreseeable future.
posted by whistle pig at 12:04 PM on April 13, 2014 [11 favorites]

Hopefully this doesn't happen again, but if it does, I encourage you to call 911 because "someone impersonating a police officer" is definitely an emergency, or it's about to become one.
posted by desjardins at 4:08 PM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Call your city council person's office.

Impersonating an officer IS serious business and you want to make sure your report has been noted.

Keep an eye out for increased patrols in your area, which is an indication you were heard and understood.
posted by jbenben at 4:15 PM on April 13, 2014

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