LAKE PLACID — Most people are taught from the time they are toddlers to respect first responders. Elementary school field trips to the fire house and police station were the highlight of the year as children watched in awe of the lights and held their hands over their ears at the sound of the sirens.
However, there are a few bad apples who spoil the bunch. Recently, there have been victims of someone impersonating a policeman. Think it doesn't happen in Highlands County? Think again. For example, Harrison Alexander Howes, 18, of Lake Placid, and a high school student has been arrested two times since Dec. 28 for impersonating an officer. In the two case he was charged with multiple third-degree felonies.
Most people want to do the right thing and obey the law. It has been drilled into us since childhood to do what officers say. That means when there are blue lights in the rear view mirror to pull over and await instruction.
However, with reports of “fake cops,” people are anxious about pulling over, especially women and especially at night. The Highlands News-Sun decided to ask the experts in the field, Lake Placid Police Chief James Fansler, Sebring Police Department's Commander Curtis Hart and Highlands County Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Scott Dressel.
“I would encourage anyone who believes a law enforcement impostor is attempting to stop them to immediately call 911,” Fansler said. “Do not stop! Call 911 and inform dispatch of your location. Try and give them a description of the vehicle attempting to conduct the stop. At that time, they will quickly be able to tell you if it is a legitimate law enforcement officer or not. If it is not a legitimate official, they will ask you to remain on the line and guide officers/deputies to your location as quickly as possible.”
Hart said depending on the level of the person's disguise it could be hard to tell an imposter from a real cop. The perpetrator could have a uniform costume or a fake badge. He said turning on the car's flashers will let the officer know that you are acknowledging him.
“Never pull over in a dark area or off the side of the road if you think an unmarked car is suspicious,” Hart said. “Pull into a well lit public place and call 911.”
Fansler gave some tips to help identify legitimate law enforcement officers.
“Every certified law enforcement officer in the state of Florida carries a photo identification card,” He said. “They should also have a badge of their respected agency. Ask for it, we are happy to show it and make the person feel at ease. Be familiar with the uniforms of local law enforcement agencies in the area. Are there patches on the shoulder? Is there a name plate on the chest? If the uniform leaves you wondering, it should be verified and ask for more information.”
Dressel's comments coincide with Fansler's.
“If you have already stopped and are feeling nervous ask for identification” Dressel said. “Every deputy has an identification card. Ours say 'Highlands County Sheriff's Office' and has a star. There is only one place to get those. Ask to see a badge. With any traffic stop the officer will state his/her name, the LEO agency they are with and why they performed the traffic stop.”
All three agency representatives agree that if someone is suspicious to call 911.