Know Your Cop

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Traffic cops are becoming ever more dangerous to our wallets — and all-too-often, our persons. Since we can’t properly defend ourselves against their depredations, avoidance is therefore becoming all the more important. If you see them before they see you, you stand a good chance of not having to interact with them at all.

Unfortunately, cops have become harder to spot. Because they no longer restrict themselves to the stereotypical cop car — the Ford Crown Vic. These are no longer being produced — and so are being replaced by cars that blend into the background better than the big Ford. Cops are also driving more unmarked cars — and even marked cars are harder to pick out before it’s too late because of their low-profile light bars and paint schemes designed specifically to make them less obviously cop cars.

But, not all the news is bad news.

First, most cars out there are not cop cars — and many of them you can write off with near 100 percent certainty as not being occupied by someone out to Harass & Collect:

* Coupes are rarely cop cars –

In the past, cops have used two-door cars for traffic work — in particular, as “pursuit” cars. Examples include the 1980s-era Ford Mustang LX and (more recently) the 1994-2002 Chevy Camaro. However, these models have been out of service for years — decades, in the case of the old 5.0 LX Mustang. While it’s possible some departments may be using newer models such as the Pontiac GTO (there was at least one of these running around SW Virginia circa 2008) it is very unlikely.

* Imports are almost never cop cars –

American traffic enforcement is overwhelmingly “buy American” minded. There have been exceptions here and there (at one time, the Falls Church, VA cops were using Volvos) but the rule is — cops cars are American cars. Part of this is patriotic glad-handing (it looks bad when American cops are driving “foreign” cars); part of it is practical politicking (government fleet buyers incline toward the home team brands for the favor-currying it involves) and part of it is due to the fact that — for the most part — the import car companies do not make cars suitable for cop duty. Historically, cops have preferred large, RWD-based vehicles — models like the Ford Crown Victoria. That’s still mostly true today.

* High-end luxury/performance cars are never cops cars –

Maybe on Miami Vice — but even then, Sonny’s Ferrari was not used for traffic enforcement. Out in the real world, cops may use luxury vehicles seized via asset forfeiture proceedings — but for undercover and other purposes, not for issuing pieces of payin’ paper. The guy in the M5 sitting next to you at the red light, revving his engine, is looking to race — not write you up.

* Cars older than 10 years are virtually never cop cars –

I won’t say never, because there are probably some rural departments that hang onto their cruisers that long — or even longer. (There was — and still may be — a company that refurbishes worn-out Chevy Impalas — the older, full-size/RWD ones that look like Shamu the Whale — and the more recent Ford Crown Vic.) But — as a general rule — most cop cars get retired long before they reach double-digit age. Many are run almost continuously, seven days a week, year round. It is not unusual for a cop car to see 100,000 miles in less than three years. Which is why it’s unusual to find one still in service after ten. For the most part, you can breathe easy if it’s older — even if it’s a model (like the Vic) that is popular with cops.

*Compact cars are rarely, if ever cop cars –

Cops are beefy — hence, they favor big cars. There is also the issue of carting the cattle (that’s us). Small cars have backseats unsuitable for “transport.” Even the otherwise popular Dodge Charger has proved problematic in this regard — and it’s only a little bit smaller than a Ford Crown Vic — and huge compared with anything in the compact class. Now, in the past, cops did use small cars like the K-car (believe it or not) and before that, the Chevy Nova — which in the ’70s was considered a “compact.” But in modern times, to my knowledge, no compact car has been put into service as a traffic patrol car. If it’s a compact coupe — or an import brand compact — you can be 99.999 percent confident it’s not a cop.

* “Crossovers” (car based wagons and car-based SUVs) are usually not cop cars –

For the most part, cops have shunned these vehicles for traffic duty because they’re too small, too expensive, too slow — or too fragile. Being either FWD or based on FWD cars, they don’t hold up as well to jumping curbs and other such abuse — and in general cost more to maintain. Also, until fairly recently, the imports dominated this class of vehicle — and as mentioned earlier, the people doing the fleet buying for cops tend to buy American. If it’s an import crossover, you’re safe. If it’s compact (Honda CR-V/Subaru Forester-sized) you’re safe. If it’s a high-end crossover (BMW, Acura, Cadillac, etc.) you’re safe.

Ok, so which cars should you be wary of?

American-brand mid-sized and full-sized sedans and (to a lesser extent) medium and full-sized SUVs.

Here is a list of the major threats:

* Dodge Charger — marked and unmarked.

* Jeep Grand Cherokee (federal and park cops seem to like these a lot).

* Ford Crown Vic, Taurus and Explorer (the Taurus is a toughie because there are a lot of them out there. Also true of the Explorer).

* Chevy Malibu and Impala; Chevy Tahoe.

If the car in question is a primary (and solid) color — such as all white or all navy blue — your threat indicator should notch up. Though “low profile” light bars and so on are harder to discern, a good eye will notice these accouterments of cop cars. Civilian cars never have wig-wag lights built into the grille — it’s illegal as carrying an AK into court. And civilian cars usually don’t have windows tinted so heavily you can’t see inside the car — again, because it’s illegal. If you see lights, tinted windows and multiple antennae — it’s a darn good bet there’s bacon in the air.

Exercise caution.

Final thing: Military pilots used to be taught to recognize the profile/silhouette of an enemy aircraft at a glance. You can do the same by memorizing what cop-likely cars look like, especially the shape of their headlights/grilles and tail-lights, so you can pick them out efficiently (and pre-emptively). This is especially helpful when operating at night.


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6 Responses to “Know Your Cop”

  1. Spike Roberson says:

    Great column! It's unfortunate in my mind that the NMA has become so focused on legal maneuvering and the reporting of international minutia while virtually ignoring the practical and necessary means to avoid tickets in the first place. Where are the articles and evaluations of ever-evolving radar detectors and laser jammers? Where are the articles on various license-plate obscuring devices — one of which in particular is very sophisticated and near production? Where are the articles — excepting what you've just written here — on enemy recognition, acquisition and avoidance? I could write a book on this stuff myself and probably should, but would today's NMA even care? The vast majority of our membership — and I say this as a long-ago SCC — is not interested in writing letters or making appearances at state hearings that have little impact; they want to know how to fight and AVOID traffic tickets in the first place while still driving at reasonable speeds. There are tactics and strategies that when combined make you very unlikely to be ticketed; this should be a priority within the NMA rather than a backwater deferred to old books.

  2. Al says:

    excellent advice. Chances are if you pay attnetion to your local cops you can tell what car they prefer and learn to spot it day and night. Scanning the police parking lot is also not a bad idea.

  3. Alex says:

    Very good article- but I wanted to add that I never thought cops used imports either- but last year I got pulled over by a new model (approx. 2010) light blue colored Toyota Camry for having one of my headlights out. I would never have suspected it was a cop. It even had well-hidden grill lights. Was on my way to replace the bulb anyway- i got a warning. This was in Flagstaff, Arizona.

  4. Brother John says:

    All good stuff. Other things to look out for on a cop car:

    If it's light out, or you can line up right, look to see if there's a vertical bar that looks like it's holding up a roof, it's part of a sliding glass partition.

    Keep your eyes sharp for license plates. Even the unmarked cruisers typically have "municipal" or "official use" plates that differ in some way from the run-of-the-mill tags.

    Look for red/blues on the backlight, just inside the rear window. Cop cars seldom have stock wheels, and never plastic wheel covers – they typically have those deep 'dog dish' style wheels. And if you come up behind a silver or dark-colored Crown Vic, look at the tag again — if it's out of state, you're good.

  5. Jack J. says:

    In some cases, local PD's will use a mini van. About a year ago, while traveling on I-90, EB through Mercer Island, WA (near Seattle,) I did see a Chrysler type minivan with the emergency lights and the MIPD logo on the driver side door obviously on a traffic stop.

    To put things into context for most people outside the Seattle / Bellevue area, Mercer Island is an upper scale city. Obviously, with physicians, executives, engineers and other professional types, you will deal with people are more observant on certain things. We know to watch out for Crown Victoria's or Chargers,and the chances of someone that has a lot to loose (job with security clearance, Etc.) from committing a felony (eluding a police officer,) that engineer / programer / school teacher is not going to try to flee a police officer over a traffic violation.

    I have lived in parts of Seattle that are, shall we say, Not OK. 'hoods like South Park and White Center are more likely to need the Crown Victoria or Charger with the stronger engine and heavy duty suspension needed to chase after the guy that has a suspended license or warrants out for their arrest, even the cat with the souped up vehicle.

    It is best to pay attention to your surroundings in general. Obviously, in most area, you want to watch out for newer model vehicles parked along the roadway. Also, talk with others to find out where the hot spots are for militant police traffic enforcement. Some parts of Seattle (e.g. SODO area, Aurora Ave. N.) are highly patrolled areas for traffic enforcement.

    Let's face3 it: we are in tough economic times and the government has always wanted to dig as deeply into our wallets as possible. They are increasing the responsibility of the Bacon Boys to dish out tickets, even out doing a ticket spitter at a parking garage at your downtown area.

  6. Rich Carlson says:

    ….On that second-to- last point… while it's true crossovers never make police service, do web search for Ford Interceptor SUV. Here in MA This is turning into the preferred replacement for the aging Crown Vics. Rationale (from a cop who says he's just about to retire – said with MUCH sarcasm) — "We won't have to swap off the tires, we'll just put all-seasons on them and the 4WD will do the rest."

    Can't wait for the first cop-lawsuit next winter when they figure out that 4WD is no replacement for good snows.