My brother is a cop, and he worked his way up through the ranks to become a captain in his department. One of the perks of the job is an unmarked police car, since he can get called in at any hour of the day or night. His is a Dodge Charger, black on black, AWD, with the 5.7 liter Hemi. I could spot it as a cop car from half a mile away, but it’s surprising how many drivers have no clue.
As a public service to you, the RideLust reader, I present seven ways to tell if that Crown VIc in your rear view mirror is about to light you up or not. Want to know if you can pass that Charger in the middle lane, doing five over the speed limit, without raising your insurance rates? Read on.
Learn what makes and models are used by police in your area
This is a tough one, since a wide variety of unmarked cars can be used for speed enforcement and undercover work. There are the obvious choices, like Dodge Chargers, Ford Crown Victorias, and even Chevrolet Impalas. Some departments like to use Ford Mustangs as chase cars, and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before Dodge Challengers and the new Chevy Camaro get pressed into service.
Bottom line? If the car is a Crown Vic or a Charger, you should ramp up your paranoia and move on to the next step.
Look for multiple antennas
Cop cars have radios and electronics, usually lots of them. Look for multiple, unfamiliar antennas. Some may be low profile, so look for anything on the roof or trunk that doesn’t look like an FM or satellite radio antenna. If you spot two or more, start thinking that it’s some kind of official vehicle.
Look for semi-hidden strobe lights – grille, rear license plate, mirrors, windshield
This should be obvious, yet most people don’t even bother to look for strobes. Some are hidden in the taillights, but others should be visible in daylight conditions. Look at the cars grille for red and blue strobes. If the car is behind you, look at the top of the windshield for an interior (hidden) lightbar. Check the mirrors, as unmarked cars often incorporate strobes into the rear view mirrors. If you’re approaching from behind the car, look for any lights out of place at the rear, such as small strobes above the license plate.
Look for an absence of dealership markings
Next to multiple antennas, this is the number one give-away of an unmarked police car. Police cars never show a dealership affiliation, so if you see a Charger or Crown Vic with no dealership stickers or license plate frames at the rear, be concerned.
Look at wheels
Generally speaking, police cars are as de-contented as possible, except for engines and suspension. Departments don’t want to spend money on alloy wheels, which are easily damaged by curbs or potholes. Generally speaking, unmarked cars will have steel wheels with vented hubcaps to allow better brake ventilation.
This isn’t foolproof, as I’ve seen unmarked cars with factory alloys (including my brother’s Charger). I mention it as one more way to help in identifying an unmarked police car.
Look for plain colors – black, silver, white
Fleet vehicles generally aren’t flashy, so my paranoia goes down when I see a bright red Charger or gold Crown Vic. Again, this isn’t an absolute rule, but the vast majority of unmarked cars I’ve ever encountered were black, white or silver. If your state’s Highway Patrol uses a two toned paint scheme (like Massachusetts’ light blue over dark blue), look for cars in the base color.
Municipal / state license plate
Most states designate city, county and state vehicles with special license plate codes. New Jersey, for example, starts city vehicle license plates with ‘MG’, county vehicle license plates with ‘CG’ and state vehicle license plates with ‘SG’. Learn what codes are used where you live, and back off when you see an unmarked car with these plates. Sure, it may be a sewer guy driving over to inspect a clogged main, but is it really worth blowing by the guy at warp speed to find out?