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How to spot an unmarked police car

And what to do if you're pulled over by one

Published December 10, 2013
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Recently, I saw Toronto Police pull over a vehicle on the Don Valley Parkway, but the uniformed officer was driving an unmarked blue Pontiac Montana – the quintessential “soccer mom” minivan – rather than an ordinary cruiser.

A minivan? You can be sure the driver didn’t see that one coming. It’s a nevereending game of cat-and-mouse on our roads as police try to nab traffic violators, with the mice (i.e. drivers) trying to avoid the fangs of the law by keeping an eye out for police on the prowl.

Normally, that’s not too hard. Even if you’re watching for unmarked vehicles, you just look for a Crown Victoria, Impala or Dodge Charger with puck antennas on the roof/trunk, black rims, unlit emergency lights in the rear window and front grille, and/or exterior spotlights.

New Ford Police Interceptors, based on the Taurus platform, are also now appearing as frontline cruisers. Police also use large SUVs, like the Chevy Tahoe.

While police may utilize virtually any model vehicle for undercover operations, it’s not often you’ll see cars other than those listed above on general patrol.

High-ranking police officials receive a leased vehicle of their choice, so it may be any model available. But senior brass will typically call in uniformed officers in a marked cruiser  to make a traffic stop rather than using their unmarked vehicle, many of which aren’t equipped with lights or a siren. However, if it’s an urgent situation — for example, a drunk driver weaving into oncoming traffic — any on-duty police officer would be obliged to take action or face possible Police Act charges for neglect of duty.

Naturally, police aren’t keen to divulge what models their unmarked vehicles were, so I took a different tack.

Records of decommissioned police vehicles sold at auction reveal models included Volvos, VW Golf and Jetta, Dodge Caliber, Grand Am, many minivans (typically North American), a VW New Beetle, Honda Civic and GM Tahoe and Suburban SUVs.

In other words, just about any model vehicle might be driven by police and, it turns out minivans are quite common among them.

Incidentally, police advise that if you’re unsure whether it’s really an officer trying to pull you over in an unmarked vehicle (particularly if there’s only a single dash light instead of the usual full police array), here’s what you should do: slow down, turn on your four-way flashers, call 911, and drive on to a busy, well lit area. (I’d suggest a gas station. A police imposter likely won’t follow you there and, in any case, the station’s security video will record the encounter.)

Lock your door, turn on your dome light, open the window just a crack, advise them you’ve called 911 and ask for police identification.

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