GREELEY, Colo. – Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams shakes his head in confusion: Somewhere out in his county, a guy with flashing lights on his Dodge Charger has been stopping drivers and warning them they're violating coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
Whoever is stopping the cars isn't one of Ream's deputies. Instead, the police impersonator is breaking the law and putting himself at extreme risk, because traffic stops are among the most dangerous things most law enforcement officers do. The stops happened several times in March.
"For the life of me, I don't understand why someone would want to do this," Reams says. "I don't think there's a law enforcement agency in the state that has time to do that kind of thing."
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Reams is not alone. Authorities have reported police impersonators making coronavirus-related stops in Georgia and California, among others. Though there are always some people, almost always men, who like to pretend they're cops, the coronavirus outbreak seems to have emboldened an unusual number of them, particularly in Northern Colorado.
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In the Weld County case, the suspect is described as a heavyset white man of medium height with light hair who stopped multiple vehicles across rural areas of the county, which is physically twice as large as Delaware.
Impostors conducted a more elaborate checkpoint in Greeley, the capital city of Weld County, around the same time, funneling drivers into a corral where men with unmarked black uniforms and dash-mounted flashing lights questioned them about violating travel restrictions, police said. Like other states, Colorado's stay-at-home order permits essential travel, including trips to work.
In Georgia's Dawson and Hall counties, a man driving a dark sedan with flashing blue lights in its windshield area stopped several drivers late last month to "enforce a curfew," the Dawson County Sheriff's office said. In California, authorities are investigating a man they say pretended to be a cop and falsely said on Facebook that officers from El Centro, a small city near the U.S.-Mexican border, were enforcing a quarantine against three families.
In all cases of the fake traffic stops, the drivers were allowed to continue on their way after being questioned by the impostors, police said. Traffic stops are dangerous because they put officers at risk for being hit by a passing car and because officers don't know what to expect from the vehicle they approach.
Reams' office says drivers who worry they're being targeted by an impostor should slow down and put on their hazard lights, then call 911 to confirm. Reams said at least one report of a police impersonator was a lie by a driver late for work. Two other impersonator reports in Wisconsin were made up, authorities said.
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Psychologist Max Wachtel says police impersonators hassling people about travel restrictions are similar to people who post social media shaming photos of strangers violating personal distance guidelines. Wachtel, a forensic psychologist, is the author of the book "Sociopaths and Psychopaths: A Crisis of Conscience and Empathy."
"I suppose there are some folks who are legitimately concerned about people breaking quarantine orders and are trying to gain some control over the situation," Wachtel says. "They see an opportunity to take advantage of the situation and grab some power for themselves."
Reams says his experience with police impersonators is much the same: men who for some reason want to exercise police powers without actually training to be a cop.
"They want to be in some position of power," he says. "It just gives them an opportunity to go out and try and assert some authority, or pretend to assert some authority. No good cop likes someone pretending to be a cop."
Wachtel says these incidents are a good reminder for us all to consider how our behavior affects others.
"Some people are just effing a_______," he says, using a word we can't print. "My advice to people who are thinking of doing something like this: Ask yourself, 'Is this something an effing a_______ would do?' If the answer is yes or maybe, don't do it."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus stay-at-home orders see fake cops go after motorists