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Beat The Heat: Seven Ways To Spot An Unmarked Police Car

Posted in Cars, Chevrolet, Dodge, driving, Ford, General, Legal, Police, Safety, Tips by Kurt Ernst | June 23rd, 2010 | 29 Responses |

That about sums it up, but RideLust is here to help.

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

Yes, even Mustangs can be cop cars.

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

Multiple antennas generally indicate a cop car.

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

See the strobes in the grille and by the rearview mirror?

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

I didn't need the license plate to tell me that. See the dealer sticker?

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

Steel wheels can be an indicator.

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

Plain white, with a funky antenna. Time to ramp up your paranoia.

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

Here's a city plate from NJ; learn what police use by you.

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?

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29 Responses

  1. Ron says:

    There’s an unmarked white Dodge Caravan in NJ. It patrols 195. I think the SP officer that drives it lost the district pool last week. He never looks happy…

  2. Kurt says:

    Ron, the best unmarked car was a Mercury Grand Marquis that a county agency used to run. It was done up as a limousine, complete with blacked out windows and script across the windshield that read, “ADT Limousine”.

    ADT actually stood for “Aggressive Driving Taskforce”, and they used to nail drivers for speeding, tailgating, weaving in traffic, etc. You had no chance of recognizing it as a cop car untli they lit you up and pulled you over.

  3. j says:

    thanks for the tips!

  4. 68SportFury says:

    The Maryland State Police have a few unmarked SUVs in their fleet. I spotted a police Expedition one morning as it passed me. The only clue was that there were two rectangular clear spots in the black tint around the rear window glass, presumably so the strobes would show up better.

    For most of the run of the Crown Vic/Police Interceptor, the departments in MD have opted for full wheel covers. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started seeing black steelies with bright centers. The Toll Facilities police have alloys on their Chargers, but the Hyattsville PD and some others have the steelies.

    I have yet to see a police Charger with engine callouts or trim-level badging. Dual exhaust and no HEMI on the fender or R/T on the decklid? Watch out.

  5. Fred Ernst (Kurt's brother) says:

    What Kurt neglected to tell you about unmarked cars is that if I don’t want you to know, you’ll never know until it’s too late.

    The best way not to get stopped is to not break the law.

    Happy Motoring

    Kurt’s brother

  6. nospaces says:

    sounds like a challenge :P stay safe out there fred.

  7. Michael says:

    Major cities like Nashville and Louisville have been using impounded cars with conversion kits. They rotate them every few months. So that pimped out car with the rims might have more than just neon lights attached.

  8. DaveMofo says:

    Hah! Kurt’s bro FTW! Around here the ghetto-fied are buying up police spec CVPI’s like there is no tomorrow when they show up at auction. They’re generally ragged out and ready to just turn over and die by the time they hit the auction block. It was getting confusing but the CVPI is all but phased out here in Dallas, and if you see a plain one it’s usually driven by a wanna be gangster. Either way, I steer clear. My city, (Dallas) had a really big fight w/ Ford over the location of the gas tank on the CVPI after a few horrendous rear endings at accident scenes.The cars exploded trapping officers inside. Awful, awful deal. The City of Dallas asked Ford Mo. Co. to do something about it,and metal shields were installed in all CVPI’s. The explosions kept on. The City told Ford they’d buy their police cars elsewhere, and Ford told Dallas they wouldn’t sell to Dallas even if they WOULD buy. We haveall sorts of police vehicles around here these days, and the citizenry stays on its toes. The good news is the Dallas Police usually don’t bust chops that don’t need busting. Around here we just show a little respect and all is well :)

  9. Kurt says:

    Dave, there was a completely gangsta’d CVPI that I used to see on the road all the time down here. It was running on 22″ wheels, with limo tint windows and a seafoam green paint job. The best part? The “Hello Kitty” decal in the back window.

    It takes a tough m-fer to rock a “Hello Kitty” whip.

  10. SNAK3 says:

    “the best unmarked car was a Mercury Grand Marquis”

    WRONG lol

  11. DaveMofo says:

    Yeah.. those mofos are always on the side of the road with one corner jacked up waiting on the owner to return with a repaired/new rim and tire.

    I think I’m gonna try putting a Hello Kitty sticker and an NRA sticker on the truck to see how it goes over in traffic. Thanks for the idea!

  12. P Molloy says:

    Here in New Zealand they’re using tricked up GM sedans (called a Commodore here, you get the two-door there as a Pontiac GTO), with alloy wheels, air dams and wings, as well as more usual plain sedans.

    • Kurt says:

      Paul, unfortunately GM killed Pontiac in the US, so we no longer get the Holden Monero (Pontiac GTO) or the Holden Commodore (Pontiac G8). There’s been rumors of GM bringing in Holden Commodores for use as police cars, but I haven’t heard anything new on this in a while.

  13. Shydel says:

    Great tips!

    I drive on the highway quite often and I rarely, if ever, do the speed limit.

    I practically live in my rearvoew mirror to see if an unmarked car is trying to sneak up on me.

    I will add these to my list.

  14. Jon says:

    I have seen unmarked police cars with dealer affiliation licence plate holder. Though it said Joe Blow Police Depot or something like that. Other than that, it was a plain black Crown Victoria with visible strobes (that is the first thing I notice about unmarked cars).

    What is more funny – or perhaps not so funny, is I tend to notice unmarked cars more so than marked ones!

  15. DaveMofo says:

    Those new GTO’s are cool! Too bad we can’t get more…

  16. Waver says:

    Back in the 90s I knew a cop that drove a 1980 Trans Am with a custom paint job. People would pull up beside him at red lights and challenge him. Even in his uniform he would be challenged. I guess people never figured the car had the ‘authority’ to pull them over. The car had been confiscated which they had slightly modified for police use.

  17. Chaotic says:

    09 Camaro in VA. Followed him around the tyson’s corner area second guessing myself if it was a legit cop.

  18. Phil says:

    Another almost foolproof way of knowing is the side mounted spotlight, though I’ve seen a few without this, also FD and other municipal services sometimes have these lights as well. Unmarked cars become very obvious when you know what your looking for.

  19. Jacck.Frost says:

    NJ LE/DTs have a LE written on their license plate – stands for law enforcement.

    also, its a bit easy to spot crown victoria headlights in rear view mirror. need some geting used to but i can spot a crown vic a mile away with them headlites.

  20. Mike says:

    Let’s see, we have fleet F150s, Silverados, Rams, Titans, Malibus, Impalas, Buicks, CVs, Taurus, Camry, Chargers, Pontiacs, Expeditions, Explorers, Tahoes, Durangos, Armadas, Cherokees, Edges, Flexes, and a few other various funky US/foreign crossovers. All are equipped and running round and every color including red. You’ll never know which one it’ll be. All have state issued covert plates and covert equipment. Mine is a Norsea colored unmarked CV (thats Ford’s color name, wife calls it odd), doesn’t slow anyone down. Good luck picking out all of ‘em, that may be us you just blasted past…again.

  21. Kurt says:

    Mike, clearly you’re a trooper. Care to tell me which state so I can be sure to drive at a reasonable approximation of the speed limit?

  22. Ross says:

    In Australia the practise of police cars having plain rims led to the standard wheel being reffered to as “interceptor rims” by some; implying that there was actually something better about them. “Ex-Interceptors” have a strong mythology in our used car market. Just put some standard rims on, make a few random screw holes in the dash and charge more !

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      In the US, EVERYONE yields the left lane to a Ford Crown Victoria. Most are ex-police cars, but why take chances when you see one in your rear view mirror.

  23. Shorebreak says:

    1. Some departments now are utilizing special paint where you can only see the word “Police” on the side of the vehicle at a certain angle.
    2. Hwy 152, also known as “Blood Alley” in N. California between Los Banos and San Jose is the home for a multitude of unmarked CHP vehicles.
    3. Some municipal police departments are exempt from state laws regarding how dark tinted windows are allowed. If you see windows in the front doors tinted darker than usual, and it’s a Crown Vic, odds are it’s a police vehicle.
    4. Small rural police and sheriff departments may be driving anything. I’ve seen them all, driving Chevrolet Tahoe SUVs to Jeep Wranglers. It depends on the terrain, climate, and time of the year.
    5. Above all, just obey the speed limits and be aware for speed traps. If legal, a good quality radar detector would come in handy.

  24. Ryan DeWald says:

    well youre right for the most part but youre missing a few like most un marked cop cars have those fog lamps on the mirror, tinted windows, some look like their rideing on spare tires, they have a simple exhust and they have computers on left or right seat depending on country (I.E.) japan left seat USA right seat.

    oh and they also have lamborghinis on the force as well as alot more types of super cars

  25. petrak says:

    Take mikes advice here. Why spend good state dollars to make a sedan heavyduty when a good pick up is allready set up for the job same with suvs. Also remember black and white makes silver.snicker. I like most try and stay far enough away as not to read licence plates. Also if your dirty you deserve to get busted. Cops ha
    ve a hard job and don’t make a lot of money.

  26. Scotty says:

    Anyone else wonder where this AWD charger came from he speaks of?? There’s no such thing as a charger in all wheel drive

  27. anynomus says:

    I got pulled over by a 2007 Nissan Maxima in my city and this dude was a cop!