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Here's what's behind the recent string of fake police officer reports in southwestern Ontario
KITCHENER -- A string of fake police officer complaints across southwestern Ontario are under investigation in the wake of the mass shooting in Portapique, N.S., that left 22 people dead.
The shooter in that case was a man dressed in a police uniform and driving a police car.
Here in Ontario, at least five incidents of police impersonation were reported in a three-week stretch from mid-April to early May, spanning from Lakeshore, Ont. to Saugeen Shores.
The map below gives a snapshot of each incident reported by police, in chronological order.
Two people have been arrested, and police said earlier this month that they do not believe the incidents are connected.
But given what happened in Nova Scotia, it begs the question: should the public be concerned?
Who is impersonating police officers?
Scott Blandford retired from policing after 30 years, and is now an assistant professor and program co-ordinator for public safety programs at Wilfrid Laurier University.
He says that most of the research done on police impersonation comes out of the U.S.
Blandford says that people who pretend to be police officers typically fall into one of the following categories:
- Police wannabes: people who want to boost their own ego or impress someone by portraying themselves as police officers
- Common criminals: people who use the authority that comes with being a police officer to carry out crimes like home invasions, thefts from a vehicle
- Deviant people: someone who uses the authority of being a police officer to commit a serious crime, like sexual assault, assault or homicide
- Vigilantes: Blandford says he sees a new category emerging in the midst the COVID-19 pandemic of people trying to identify someone whom they believe shouldn't be in a particular area like cottagers, or in more serious cases, racism towards people whom they perceive to be immigrants
Police are overwhelmingly impersonated by white men. Blandford says that 87 per cent fall into that category, and that the average age of a police impersonator is about 31.
Are police impersonators a danger to the public?
As far as the physical danger of a police impersonator, Blandford says that depends on what category the person falls into.
"Generally, research has shown that the police wannabes or the enthusiasts are generally not dangerous," he explains.
"They're doing it more to feed their ego, to present themselves in an authority position that they don't normally have, and it's generally to impress either themselves or other people."
A common criminal could pose a risk to a victim, but Blandford says that a deviant person is a definite risk to the public.
There is an underlying danger to this kind of activity, too, in that it can undermine police credibility and authority.
Are these incidents happening more often?
As a police officer for 30 years, Blandford says that he's seen a number of cases of police wannabes impersonating officers.
"I never really ran across the situation where someone was using it for criminal purpose. It doesn't mean it didn't happen, it just means that I didn't actually come across it," he says.
He believes that the incidents go underreported because people historically might brush off these types of encounters.
It's hard to say why we're hearing about them more often, but Blandford has two theories as to why there have been more reports in recent memory.
For one thing, he says that the public is becoming more aware of these impersonators, and thus more likely to report them if they have an encounter.
Ontario Provincial Police echo that sentiment.
“We have had these incidents in the past and suspect we will have them in the future,” explains OPP West Region media coordinator Derek Rogers. “I suppose what has changed really is the public awareness of the matter due to the tragic events in Nova Scotia.”
Blandford also says there's more inventory of police equipment like police badges and uniforms available online, making it easier for someone to pretend to be a police officer.
What can be done about police impersonators?
Blandford says that, if you believe you're being approached by a police impersonator, calling 911 is the best option.
The dispatcher will be able to confirm whether or not an actual police officer has called in the incident.
If you aren't able to call 911, Blandford says that you can either drive to a more populated area or to a police station if possible.
“You’re not going to be fined for it, you’re not going to be berated for it,” Rogers says.
“If you have a legitimate fear for your safety, you should call 911.”
Blandford also says that, more important than the badge, a police officer's warrant card is what gives them their authority.
He says that a warrant card usually contains photo identification, a police logo and a signature from the chief of police. It's usually contained in a wallet along with an officer's badge.
On a wider scale, legal changes may be the answer.
He says that in the U.K., it's illegal to buy or sell police equipment without authorization. In Canada, it's only illegal to use it to personate an officer.
"Could there be changes in the legislation? I think that's a possibility that something should be looked at to prevent this," he says.
Arrests have been made in connection to two of the incidents in southwestern Ontario. Investigation into the others is ongoing.
Anyone who may have information is asked to contact police. Should you wish to remain anonymous, you can call Crime Stoppers instead at 1-800-222-8477.
With reporting from Spencer Turcotte and Natalie van Rooy.