It looked like just another routine traffic stop last month in North Laurel: A man in a Dodge Stratus that appeared to be an unmarked police car with flashing red lights had pulled over a driver on an industrial stretch of U.S. 1.
Except the man wasn't a Howard County police officer. And the car - despite the flashing emergency lights on the dashboard - was not an unmarked police cruiser. A real Howard police officer who stopped to assist quickly discovered the ruse and arrested a suspect - the second police impersonation case in Howard in less than three weeks.
Police officials say the problem of "wannabe cops" is not exactly an epidemic, but they express concern that even a few incidents can harm the public's trust in law enforcement.
Pulling over and yelling at a motorist for an alleged traffic violation, as happened in one of the Howard cases, is a seemingly benign - if creepy - offense. Police are far more concerned about frauds who use a fake uniform or badge to commit such crimes as robbery, rape and, in rare cases, murder.
In many states, including Maryland, impersonating a police officer is a misdemeanor, with maximum jail times of six months to one year and fines of $1,000 or less.
But some officials and law enforcement experts think it's time to increase penalties, especially since police equipment and accessories can be purchased with little or no oversight through Web sites or catalog companies.
"It's a danger to the public," said Todd Taylor, a Howard deputy state's attorney. "We would like to see stronger penalties. One, [impersonators] reduce the confidence in the Police Department. [The fake officer] can say or do things that hurts the image of cops. Second, if you get pulled over by one of these fakes, you may not want to be pulled over when a real cop tries to stop you."
In extreme cases, police impersonators have committed violent crimes. Colorado stiffened its penalty after an impersonator kidnapped and killed a 20-year-old female college student in January.
In New York City, problems with police impersonators prompted its Police Department several years ago to form a unit in which real officers investigate the fake ones and the crimes they commit.
But in Baltimore, incidents of impersonators are still rare, said Chief Edwin Day, who leads the department's detectives.
Before coming to Baltimore, Day served in New York City's police force as a lieutenant commander of detectives. One problem in New York, he said, was drug dealers who would wear clothing with police logos and "raid" other dealers to rob them of drugs and cash.
"That's something that, thankfully, we haven't seen here too often," Day said.
Recently, other area law enforcement agencies have collared impersonators who had gone to extremes to look like police officers. In the metropolitan Baltimore area, police have arrested at least four men and charged them with impersonating officers since the beginning of the year.
In an Aug. 10 case, Howard police charged Oley Burgess Rust III, a 45-year-old Laurel man, with concealing a deadly weapon and impersonating an officer.
A Howard officer saw a red Ford Crown Victoria parked on the road's shoulder with the engine running on U.S. 1, without a driver. Believing the car was an unmarked police vehicle, the officer pulled over to help and saw a laminated placard inside the vehicle that said "Police Official Business," according to police charging documents.
When the officer questioned the driver, police said, he admitted that he was a bail enforcement agent. The officer saw a knife in the man's front pocket and put him in handcuffs. He found another knife and two handguns and ammunition in his car.
In the latest case Aug. 29, a Howard officer saw a man in what looked like an unmarked police car make a traffic stop using flashing lights on Washington Boulevard, in North Laurel.
When the real officer pulled over to help the fake one, he noticed the man was carrying a badge on his front belt that said "Special Private Investigator MD," a pair of handcuffs and a knife in his back pocket. The officer also noticed a baton in the man's car.
But the man was unable to provide further documentation that he was an officer.
Police charged Brian F. Rogers, 25, of Baltimore with police impersonation and concealing a deadly weapon, according to charging documents.
The cases this year haven't been limited to local law enforcement departments. In July, state police charged a Stevensville man in Glen Burnie with posing as a trooper - and selling prescription drugs.
Police found a cache of gear and equipment at his home and in two cars, modified to look like unmarked cruisers, that included dashboard emergency lights, a bulletproof vest with "POLICE" emblazoned on it, police badges, a radar unit and a siren, state police said.
"It's nothing that we encounter every day; it's rare," said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a state police spokesman. "We normally average one or two a year."