HOUSTON -- They sure looked like cops.
The five men who barged through the door of a townhouse Monday wore Houston police raid jackets and carried Tasers and pistols. They cuffed the homeowner with a plastic tie, then kicked him in the stomach and started ransacking the place.
Even a police officer who rushed to the scene after a neighbor called for help momentarily thought the criminals were legitimate law enforcement officers working with a tactical squad. Only after they started running did he realize the impersonators were burglars.
Houston police—the real ones—arrested two of the fleeing suspects, but three burglars got away. And with that, the city had chalked up yet another case of criminals posing as police officers.
It’s a growing problem. Thieves have discovered one of the best disguises they can wear is anything identifying them as police. Just a few weeks ago, a crew of crooks masquerading as cops raided an illegal game room, clearing out the customers then cleaning out the cash.
“You know, there’s not a few days that go by that you don’t hear about this sort of thing,” said J.J. Berry, the acting president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “And it is very frustrating for law enforcement officers.”
All of this raises the question of where criminals are getting their authentic police gear. A number of local businesses sell law enforcement uniforms, but police say the shops generally ask customers for identification.
“It’s been a growing concern lately, as people have been impersonating police officers,” said Jacqueline Orellana of Central Police Supply, a store selling uniforms and other equipment to law enforcement personnel. “And we’re even more diligent about checking IDs and just looking for suspicious people. And it’s alarming every time you hear it.”
Buying certain law enforcement insignia gear is startlingly simple. A quick search of eBay shows several authentic Houston Police Department shoulder patches on sale for less than five dollars each.
And a huge loophole in Texas law makes it legal. The state penal code outlaws selling civilians anything—from badges to uniforms—that would identify someone as a police officer. But there’s an exception in the law for any buyer intending to use such law enforcement paraphernalia for decorative or artistic purposes.
“We truly understand the fear that some people may have,” Berry said. “And it does hamper our job when we’re out there on the job trying to do what’s right.”