Officers and agents will hide who they are for all kinds of reasons, from catching speeders to infiltrating extremist political groups to prevent the kidnappings of state governors. It’s often hard to recognize undercover cops, but there are some tells, so here’s a rough guide to recognizing cops dressed as civilians and cop cars dressed as regular cars.
Your local police department probably doesn’t advertise which kinds of cars and disguises they use for undercover or unmarked police work. I reached out to the LAPD to discuss with them, but of course they responded, “We do not disclose any tactics information and those questions fall under that category,” so any information about how to spot incognito cops isn’t going to be “official,” obviously.
Plainclothes law enforcement agents and undercover law enforcement agents are two different things. Plainclothes cops are any that don’t wear a traditional uniform—detectives, other kinds of investigators, and officers working in administrative roles. This covers basically any officer who is not out in public, answering calls. They aren’t necessarily hiding their status as police, even if they aren’t exactly advertising it.
Undercover cops, though, are actively hiding their police affiliation. They are often part of larger investigations that could involve infiltrating criminal organizations or blending into the crowd at a protest.
A similar distinction applies to “unmarked” police vehicles and “undercover” police vehicles. The first is any law enforcement vehicle that isn’t outwardly marked with its department. It could include everything from cars designed to enforce traffic laws with stealth, to cars that detectives drive while investigating crimes or picking up doughnuts. These cars often have indications that they are law enforcement vehicles, even if they are subtle. An undercover vehicle will have no indication of it being a police car—even if you looked in the glovebox, you’d find regular car insurance and registration information.
There are roughly 18,000 police agencies in the United States, and they use all kinds of vehicles for all kinds of purposes, from Dodge Chargers meant to catch speeders to police semi-trucks in Florida, to public relations vehicles like this hot-pink breast cancer awareness Explorer my local 5-0 have been driving lately. So spotting an unmarked police vehicle is a crapshoot, but there are some characteristics that might tip you off to an unmarked police cruiser.
Unmarked police cars might sport municipal or exempt tags, but they don’t necessarily have to outwardly indicate their status on their plates. They might also be missing the registration stickers that some states require. This varies depending on the department. It’s not going to matter much when they’re pulling you over anyway.
It used to be easier to spot an unmarked police car—just look for the black Crown Victoria—but these days, police officers could be driving anything from pick-up trucks to federal government subsidized mini-tanks. Still, the most popular police vehicles overall in the United States and Canada are:
It’s fair to assume that these five kinds of cars are the ones police are most likely to be driving around unmarked.
Unmarked police car often sport the same kind of extra gear that regular police cars have. That can mean lights on the grill or side-mirrors, dark tints on the windows, and a cage-like “push bumper” over the front bumper. Older cop cars might have a ton of antennae as well, although technology has generally made these kind of arrays unnecessary.
Barring a terrible undercover officer, law-abiding citizens probably aren’t going to spot an undercover police car. These vehicles are chosen specifically to fit in with whatever operation is being run. They could be literally anything, from high-priced super-cars to barely running beaters.
According to this paper published by the Stanford Law Review, police generally engage in undercover operations when they are investigating crimes that involve “secretive, complex, and consensual activities.” Crimes like the manufacturer of meth, bribery, and dogfighting. Cops infiltrate political demonstrations and organizations too—maybe to provide unobtrusive protection in a situation where a uniform would cause anger or maybe to act as agent provocateurs—it depends on who you ask.
Infiltrators of political events or organizations might be experienced and talented super-cops in deep cover, or they might be these fake Hasidic Jews who weren’t fooling anyone. There are many tales of activists reporting obvious cops attending protests. Here are some tips for how you might spot them.
You can also pay attention to how they look. None of these outward signs are surefire cop-indicators, but they should cause you to put your guard up a bit:
This post is for informational purposes only. Cop-spotting is an inexact science and the stakes are high—even if you see a dude pull up to your protest in a 2021 Challenger rocking a new haircut and a pair of cargo pants, he might be a normal suburban guy interested in radical politics, or an off-duty cop hired by rally organizers to provide security. Conversely, because cops aren’t (necessarily) idiots, they might have none of the above traits and look more like they belong than you do.
If you’re engaged in anything organized and illegal or politically controversial, there’s a good chance someone around you is monitoring it, and the depressing fact is there’s not much you can do about it. Undercover cops have a ridiculous amount of leeway in what they can do, up to and including committing crimes themselves, so beyond maybe warning other people to look out for someone sketchy, the best you can do is keep your nose clean.