The Movies Tell Us: How to Impersonate a Police Officer

By  · Published on August 13th, 2014

TriStar Pictures

Let’s be cops! Well, not real cops, because despite what Police Academy teaches us, not everyone is cut out to wear a badge and uniform. No force is so desperate for recruits that they’re going to let such incompetent people off the street enroll in their training program. Being a cop is really hard. And dangerous. And takes a certain amount of intelligence and skill and tact.

Of course, the real world is currently (continually) proving that there are bad cops all around, almost to the point that the latest buddy cop comedy, Let’s Be Cops, seems ill-timed. But this isn’t a movie about real officers of the law. It’s about two guys impersonating police officers, complete with seemingly authentic costumes and seemingly authentic LAPD cruiser. Somehow they’re not spotted as frauds immediately and thrown into prison.

I don’t know the genuine amount of time one could get away with pretending to be a cop, but this isn’t the first movie to make us think you could impersonate a police officer for a long while. Even if you’re committing crimes the entire time. Check out the guide below to see what we’ve learned from the movies as to how to go about “being a cop.”

Method: Be a former cop
Movie: Maniac Cop (1988)

One way to get your hands on all the means to be a convincing fake cop is to already have the materials and clothes. It’s likely that these things are handed in with inventoried measure if you quit or get kicked off the force, but what if you’re killed? Not that the titular slasher of Maniac Cop died on duty. Or truly died. Never mind all that. He also has a collaborator inside the department, so that helps.

How realistic is the idea? Earlier this summer, an ex-cop in Connecticut was arrested for still being “on the job.” It’s unclear if he was also undead.

Method: Remove your clothes
Movies: Magic Mike (2012)

Perhaps the most legal way of pretending to be a cop is to be a stripper dressed as one. In real life, though, the costumes are presumably more recognizably fake than what is worn in most movies and TV shows – save for maybe American Wedding, which has a dancer with a barely there sexy cop outfit. But having strippers mistaken for actual police officers is a common gag. Sometimes, as in the case of Days of Thunder (where the fake cop is more prostitute than mere stripper), the audience is fooled, too. In Magic Mike, it’s only the sorority girls who are unaware that Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer are not actually officers set on busting a bunch of college kids for underage drinking. They’re plenty convincing right up until they swiftly remove their pull-away pants.

How realistic is the idea? I’ve never heard of a stripper being mistaken for a cop beyond scenes like that, but there are occasional news stories of cops mistaken for strippers.

Method: Remove your other disguise
Movie: The Dark Knight (2008)

If you’re going to pose as a police officer, especially amidst many other police offers, the key is to not stand out. That means that if you normally wear white face paint as part of some villainous getup, you’ll want to wash that off. In Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie, Heath Ledger’s The Joker also kidnaps some actual cops to get their uniforms. He then falls into a crowd of cops without notice, in spite of his face still being cut up enough to attract attention.

How realistic is the idea? Infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy was known for dressing up as a clown for children’s parties, and he also apparently impersonated a police officer once in order to sexually assault a man. Then there’s the guy who didn’t follow the method and was arrested this year for posing as a cop while wearing a pig mask.

Method: Use only your voice
Movie: Compliance (2012)

One of the difficult parts of posing as a cop is getting a convincing uniform and props. It’s also easier to be nabbed by actual cops when you’re physically present in a situation. Someone could pass more easily by using the phone and simply stating that he’s an officer of the law. In Craig Zobel’s brilliantly uncomfortable Compliance, Pat Healy plays a creep who calls up a fast food restaurant, claims to be a cop and uses the fraudulent authority to make employees do unthinkable things to each other.

How realistic is the idea? Compliance was actually heavily inspired by true cases of this sort of scam, including one specific incident at a Kentucky McDonald’s.

Method: Morph into one
Movie: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The most famous fake cop in movies has to be the T-1000 in the first Terminator sequel. But his initial method seems to be to simply beat up a cop and steal his clothes, badge and gun. This is before we learn that he’s a liquid-metal entity that doesn’t need clothes. He probably just morphed his body to mimic the fallen officer’s uniform, as he does later when morphing back from other forms. He probably could have (and likely would have) stolen the guy’s identity completely, face and all, but he’s already shaped like a man portrayed by Robert Patrick – mainly in order to (poorly) keep from the audience that he’s an advanced evil killing machine.

How realistic is the idea? Not realistic at all. Nobody and no thing can morph into another body or thing. Except for werewolves.

Method: Wear one’s face
Movie: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

One of the coolest parts of Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning thriller is the escape of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). We think that he merely kills a cop and runs off, but his plan is much more clever and much, much more devious. He pretends to be the dead cop, taking not just his uniform and accessories but also his face, which he cuts off and places onto his own. Then he’s wheeled out on a stretcher by other authorities who buy his impersonation. A similar escape plan is employed by Jean Reno in Leon (The Professional), but he just goes with the riot cop’s uniform and gas mask, a pseudo sort of face. And of course there’s Face/Off, in which an FBI agent (John Travolta) – a kind of cop, sure – goes undercover by wearing a terrorist’s (Nicolas Cage) detached face implanted as his own, and vice versa.

How realistic is the idea? Lecter was based partly on real serial killer Ed Gein, who did make masks out of his victims’ own faces, though he never tried to elude authorities by wearing one. Going as far as what’s done in Face/Off, however, is probably a ways away.

Method: Build an evil version of one
Movie: Inspector Gadget (1999)

Plenty of movies and TV shows use the evil doppelgänger as replacement idea, including Get Smart, which is why it made sense that the cartoon series Inspector Gadget, somewhat based on the earlier spy series, also involved doubles created by its villain, Dr. Claw. The first live-action movie of Inspector Gadget recycles the idea, having a robot clone made to pass as the cyborg detective (Matthew Broderick) and make him look bad. There’s a slightly similar case in the parody film Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th, but there it’s an evil twin of a security guard (Tom Arnold).

How realistic is the idea? There are no robot clones, as far as I know, and maybe no actual twin posing as his cop sibling, but there is the story of the ex-cop in Connecticut who pretended to be his twin brother and fool the guy’s wife in order to sleep with her.

Method: Drive a flashy sports car
Movie: Cannonball Run II (1984)

We expect cops to be driving cop cars. Or pretend cop cars, in the case of Let’s Be Cops. That’s where we’d look for a couple of guys pretending to be police officers, right? Unless cop uniforms are the latest disguises for a pair of contenders in the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Real police cruisers can go pretty fast, but for a cross-country race, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.’s characters instead go with a red Corvette in the Cannonball Run sequel. They look pretty inconspicuous, obviously, but in a way they look too inconspicuous to be thought of as suspicious. It’s not until someone tells a real cop to look out for communists posing as cops that they’re given a hard time.

How realistic is the idea? There are plenty of undercover cops who get to drive sports cars, and there are plenty of sports cars painted to be used as marked police cars, but it’s unlikely you’d ever see a cop in uniform driving something like a Corvette. Still, an article from 2008 warning people about fake cops in pretend undercover vehicles did include Corvettes under possible vehicles used for such schemes.

Method: Display convincing authority
Movie: The Town (2010)

Most people pretending to be cops probably want to stay unnoticed, at least by other authority figures like fellow cops and security guards. But if your reason for the disguise is to rob Fenway Park, maybe you need to draw attention to yourself, be as convincingly commanding as possible and easily order the others around. Look at how Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner’s characters do it in Affleck’s The Town. They stroll in at first, playing the part well enough to be conspicuous, but then they run into guards and have to really play to the role in order to get close enough to take control and overtake them. After pilfering $3m, they change into EMT costumes for an intended getaway via ambulance.

How realistic is the idea? Not only is it realistic that a bunch of guys would pose as cops in a robbery scheme, but last year a trio of criminals supposedly inspired by The Town knocked over a NYC check-cashing place and nearly got away with $200k by wearing police uniforms – oh, and also Hollywood-grade white-guy masks over their black faces.

Method: Become an actual cop
Movie: The Departed (2006)

It may seem weird to have “become an actual cop” as one of the ways to pretend to be a cop. But just because you’ve gone through the academy and gain employment with a police force, that doesn’t mean you’re a genuine cop. You could be the most highly invested mafia mole there is. In Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, the head of a Boston organized crime outfit recruits a kid (Matt Damon) early enough to eventually send him through school and training in order to go completely undercover within the department, specifically its unit devoted to organized crime. Because The Departed is a remake, of course there’s also the example of its source film, Infernal Affairs.

How realistic is the idea? Corrupt police officers are very real, though we still consider them police officers (and they’d see themselves as such more than Damon’s character does). The closest true examples might be Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, notorious detectives who worked for the Luchese family, committing all kinds of crimes including murder and holding court as moles within the NYPD.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.