Actors Playing New York City Policemen

Did you know you could be arrested for carrying a police uniform in New York City?

With security tighter in the Big Apple since Sept. 11, 2001, the union that represents TV and film actors has begun advising its New York-area members to stop buying police costumes or carrying them to gigs, even if their performances require them.

The Screen Actors Guild said in a statement posted on its Web site on Friday that “an apparent shift in city policy” may put actors at risk of arrest if they are stopped while carrying anything that looks too much like a real police uniform.

The odds that an actor might be stopped and questioned on his or her way to work went up this month when police began conducting random searches of passengers’ bags in New York’s subway system. The guild said two of its members had been detained by security personnel at an airport and a courthouse in recent months for possessing police costumes.

This seems like overkill to me. I understand that a police uniform is an authentication device—not a very good one, but one nonetheless—and we want to make it harder for the bad guys to get one. But there’s no reason to prohibit screen or stage actors from having police uniforms if it’s part of their job. This seems similar to the laws surrounding lockpicks: you can be arrested for carrying them without a good reason, but locksmiths are allowed to own the tools of their trade.

Here’s another bit from the article:

Under police department rules, real officers must be on hand any time an actor dons a police costume during a TV or film production.

I guess that’s to prevent the actor from actually impersonating a policeman. But how often does that actually happen? Is this a good use of police manpower?

Does anyone know how other cities and countries handle this?

Posted on August 25, 2005 at 12:52 PM61 Comments


Zippy August 25, 2005 1:41 PM

I tend to disagree slightly with the lockpick analogy. The lockpick tools are extremely vertical and do not carry the social engineering risks a police uniform (or any other official or official-looking uniform for that matter) carries. Many people would not recognize lockpicks, special weapons or many other restricted items but uniforms on the other hand act as social “skeleton keys”. They typically induce confidence in the beholder.

Simply spoken, a realistic uniform opens doors, allows access to restricted areas, and overall shields the wearer from heightened scrutiny.

Zwack August 25, 2005 1:56 PM

The quote above doesn’t say that Actors were WEARING the uniforms when stopped, but that they were CARRYING them. I assume that they were in some form of clothes carrier and weren’t actually visible until their bags were searched.
I own a police shirt, and would own a considerable number if they weren’t so expensive. It’s a 5.11 Tactical shirt ( and was purchased (new) from a local Uniform shop that also supplies some of the local police forces. While it doesn’t have any of the insignia, it definitely looks like a police/security guard shirt. The same store sells the insignia, but requires a letter on letterhead from the police department to authorise it. I don’t know if it is easy to fake the letter or if there are less scrupulous stores around. I didn’t ask, and my reason for buying the shirt was that it got an excellent review on CoolTools.

I would hate to think that that counts as “looking too like a police uniform”. There are a number of security companies that definitely push that boundary in my opinion, I wonder how many of them have got into trouble for that.


Pete August 25, 2005 2:00 PM

Surely at some point this has to reach tipping point? If I were to suggest that anthrax could be stored in a bag marked “flour”, would some wise man decide that carrying bags of flour should now be illegal? When we’re all walking around completely naked, and the only item that we are allowed to be in possession of in public is our ID card, will we be safe? Or will it seem perfectly rational?

It’s true that a realistic uniform will make people trust you more. But so will a pleasant smile – are those illegal now too?

Apologies if I sound like a troll.

Bruce Schneier August 25, 2005 2:14 PM

Certainly it should be a crime to impersonate a police officer. This is not about that. This is about denying access to the tools that might make it easier for someone to impersonate a police officer. That’s very different.

MrAtoz August 25, 2005 2:18 PM

Police uniforms and other sorts of official uniforms were a key tool used by legendary bank robber Willie Sutton. His memoirs (“Where the money was”) describes this in some detail. It is an excellent, fun read and describes many security exploits that would probably be as effective today as they were over a half-century ago. Sutton relied almost entirely on the social approach to breaching security — while he carried a gun, he never had to shoot anyone.

After it became clear that Sutton was succeeding by using these uniforms, I believe that NYC moved to make them more difficult to acquire, although I could be remembering that incorrectly.

Davi Ottenheimer August 25, 2005 2:24 PM

“I understand that a police uniform is an authentication device — not a very good one, but one nonetheless — and we want to make it harder for the bad guys to get one. But there’s no reason to prohibit screen or stage actors from having police uniforms if it’s part of their job.”

Agreed. I think Pete already covered this, but I just wanted to add that if you listen to Frank W. Abagnale you might be convinced that everyone (let alone actors) should also be prohibited from wearing Security Guard, Airline Pilot, or even just regular old Business suits, just because they might not actually be who they say they are.

This is obviously nonsense from a security perspective. The goal of security is to enable freedoms, not take them away due to fear. The right answer is to find a better method of positive identification. How hard is it to ascertain whether someone is an actor or a legit officer when they are en route to their job? After all, we’re not talking about someone trying to pose as an officer AT their job…

Rod August 25, 2005 2:26 PM

One important thing to remember in this discussion is public perception as an important risk. People know that it’s illegal to impersonate an officer, but if police officer uniforms are easy to get, then people may become concerned that the person pulling them over or commandeering their vehicle is an impersonator.

Even if impersonations are rare, the problem of the public being suspicious of uniformed officers (with no way to authenticate beyond it. If you can fake the uniform, you can fake the badge), the results could be pretty terrible.

Since we, as citizens, have no way of knowing if the uniformed person we’re dealing with is an actual cop or not, we’re essentially forced to use appearance to judge – uniform, badge, mannerisms, etc. If this authentication mechanism, weak as it may be, is placed into question in the eye of the public, the consequences could be much worse than the consequences of actual impersonations.

It may be overkill, but I certainly can see why it might be considered extremely important.

Stephen August 25, 2005 2:27 PM

“When we’re all walking around completely naked, and the only item that we are allowed to be in possession of in public is our ID card, will we be safe?”

Don’t forget Pete, to the backscatter scanners, we’re already naked.

Davi Ottenheimer August 25, 2005 2:36 PM

“people may become concerned that the person pulling them over or commandeering their vehicle is an impersonator”

As they should be. Nevermind being concerned when the person calling them on the phone, sending them mail, etc. claims to be a police officer.

Officers usually have a badge number and a nameplate, regardless of uniform, for a reason. They actually encourage the public being alert and aware of possible fraud.

Davi Ottenheimer August 25, 2005 2:42 PM

Here’s an interesting reference on the issue of impersonation:

“Since 2001, [Austin Police Department’s] (APD) Integrity Crimes Unit has investigated 166 impersonation cases.

When someone is trying to ask you question or pull you over, how can you tell if it’s a real police officer? APD says there are a couple of things you should look for.

“All the Austin Police officer are issued an identification card. They have their picture, and it says Austin Police Department on it. If it’s an undercover officer, they are going to have a badge like I have here and you are going to see that. They are definitely going to make themselves known as police officers,” [Sgt. Mark] Spangler said.

Spangler says know your rights and never be afraid to ask questions.

“They shouldn’t be hesitant to ask for that. ‘Please show me your identification.’ They can even ask them to please call a uniformed officer out here to meet with us,” Spangler said.

Vlad August 25, 2005 2:45 PM

Even if we assume actors aren’t going to imersonate an officer, it still might be helpful to have one present in case the actor is mistaken for one in a situation where a real officer may be required. A police uniform represents ‘help’ to most people in an emergency situation, so if a person in a uniform is there, it would be good if a real source of help were there, too. An dressed up actor with no ill intentions might create confusion just with there presence.

Bruce Schneier August 25, 2005 2:52 PM

@ Vlad

I get all this. There a lot of aspects of modern life that have the potential to create confusion. And it makes sense that it takes a real policeman to clear up fake-policeman confusion. My question is: is this a good use of police manpower?

Ian Mason August 25, 2005 2:54 PM


“Here’s another bit from the article:
Under police department rules, real officers must be on hand any time an actor dons a police costume during a TV or film production.
I guess that’s to prevent the actor from actually impersonating a policeman.”

I think the logic is more that if a member of the public, possibly highly distressed, sees a police uniform and comes forward asking for help, that there is a real policeman handy to provide a response.

We have no such requirement in the UK. I used to know one of the screenwriters for “The Bill” a popular UK police drama/soap opera. He’s recounted tales to me of occasions where, during filming of street scenes, members of the public have asked uniformed members of the cast for assistance.

T Man August 25, 2005 3:01 PM

I don’t think this is overkill. Considering the average production facility for a movie or tv show, I think it is more likely that they would have the costume as a part of the set wardrobe, and not as people’s individual clothing. If this is what is required, then this is what will have to be done. I really don’t see it as a big deal.

And I think that Ian is right on the money concerning the reasoning for an actual officer to be present. While I’m sure that part of it is to prevent theft (either by an actor, or by a passerby that wishes to impersonate an officer, since finding out where the next episode of Law & Order is to be filmed is not that difficult), being able to provide help to the public that may believe that officer to be real.

Mary R August 25, 2005 3:10 PM


Film sets always have a duty officer on hand, paid for by the film. In my experience, it is usually a retired officer, someone with very good social skills. The PAs (production assistants) deal with passersby and troublemakers (people complaining that their road is shut), but the cop is there to back them up, should there be trouble.

What seems strange about this is that film and TV shoots are fairly heavily permitted. If the actor was unable to convince the cop who they were, shouldn’t the police officer just be able to check if a permit was issued for the shoot?

I know that there used to be a healthy market for police badges (yep, you could buy the same ones the cops wear). Every time there was a robbery or rape where a criminal used a purchased badge, the pols would try to stop it. But the police would complain about how much they enjoyed collecting them, and that was the end of that. Don’t know for sure, but I bet that hobby is over.

Vlad August 25, 2005 3:11 PM

@ Bruce

Generally, I think, there are some or many officers on duty without any specific task to attend to, who just patrol the streets in case they’re needed or just to show the public that the police are around. Being present with the actor wouldn’t really prevent them from providing help to other people if they are needed. We can have officers performing low-priority tasks if there are enough officers available to handle all the high-priority things at the moment.

Also, it seems likely that the ‘actor in uniform’ thing doesn’t come up very often, so it probably doesn’t consume too many officer-hours each year.

Eric K. August 25, 2005 3:13 PM

Much like gun control, attempts to control the possession of police uniforms become a form of self-deception.

You end up assuming that, because it’s next-to-impossible to get hold of a police uniform, it’s next-to-impossible for the policeman in front of you to be an impostor. You’ll be willing to trust the fact that he’s in uniform, so must be the real thing without so much as glancing at his badge or identification.

Meanwhile, the guy who somehow does manage to get hold of a uniform gets to do whatever he wants, no questions asked…

So, just like strict control of guns makes things easier for those who already have them and don’t care about the legality of doing so, (“If guns are outlawed, only the outlaws will have guns”), making police uniforms so scarce that it’s hard to believe that anyone could illegally possess one makes it that much easier to successfully impersonate an Officer.

You erroneously trust his uniform, not his badge or identification.

Now, we’ve discussed before how ID cards are far from perfect, but I can’t believe that mere clothing is so much more secure and difficult to counterfeit.

But, then, another way of looking at it would be that incidents where mistrusting a real officer would create more frequent and greater problems than incidents where people mistakenly trust imposters…

JohnJ August 25, 2005 3:26 PM

We’re talking about carrying a replica uniform, not necessarily wearing it. Add to that this bit from the article: “City code has long prohibited anyone other than a police officer from possessing a replica uniform or badge.”

Take it to the (il)logical extreme and the studio set can’t get the uniforms either as the UPS/FedEx delivery person would not be able to carry the package containing the replica uniform. And the costume person on the set couldn’t touch it. And stores, if within city limits, wouldn’t be allowed to sell them.

– One more reason to film in Canada, I suppose.
– What next? Arresting you for dressing like an undercover cop?

Arik August 25, 2005 3:40 PM

It’s the old “if x was outlawed, only outlaws would have x” maxim at work. The honest people (actors) can’t have it, but outlaws sure will.

Chung Leong August 25, 2005 4:05 PM

@Eric K.

In many situations, visual authentication is the only possible option. If you see a man in police uniform banishing a gun at someone, you’re not going to walk up and ask for his ID. Nor would you pick up the phone and dial 911. A police uniform basically allows a person to do things out of the ordinary without arousing suspicion. It’s a real concern.

A possible solution might be to mandate fake police uniform to be in a different color–say dark green. With today’s technology it shouldn’t be hard to change it to the right color during post-production.

Peter August 25, 2005 4:10 PM

I remember from reading one of the fan sites and books for Law and Order where they discussed the issues of actors in police uniform. If my memory is correct, all of the precinct uniforms on screen have bogus precinct numbers. I think 19th is the one used for all shoots. They did mention that they often had someone run up asking for help, and that the uniformed real cops did give assistance. I would have thought that the police uniforms were costumes owned by the film company rather than prop(ertie)s that the actors had to purchase. Although, in this day and age of corporate cheapness, that it wouldn’t surprise me if the actors now had to buy their own costumes.

There are all sorts of regulations about filming in NYC, if you need to block off the street or even film on the street, you’ll need police for protection (cameras are expensive), traffic control, and sometimes, because the actors are playing cops.

pd August 25, 2005 4:19 PM

First off it would be good to have some figures on how often people have impersonated police officers, and what real problems that caused. Is there a real problem they are trying to solve, or is this inventing problems to justify budgets? Also knowing when this went into effect might provide a clue as to the motivation. If it happened recently along with the unconstitutional random searches, then we can assume it is a knee-jerk reaction to the London train bombings. If so, it is difficult to see how posing as a cop would make setting off a bomb any easier. People who refuse the random searches cannot be detained (since the searches would not be held up in court anyway), so it is no less risky in terms of arrest probability to pose as police.

To me, the event of a terrorist event is so remote, it forces the national security establishment to expand the definition of terrorist and terrorism to cover more territory simply to justify their existence.

Jilara August 25, 2005 4:31 PM

It seems to me that the same rules for private individuals should apply to businesses (production companies). Thus, it would probably be illegal for film production companies to transport/possess replica uniforms, as well. So the next question is if there is a legal waiver procedure.

I am familiar with waivers, as I am a Civil War reenactor, and am in a state where firearms are illegal on school grounds. Most schools grant waivers to allow reenactors to bring antique replica weapons onto the grounds as part of a historical demonstration.

J August 25, 2005 4:35 PM

To answer Bruce’s question, at least in part: in the UK there aren’t such rules for clothing, or even wearing clothing very close. I have worked in offices where some bright spark thinks it is fun to arrange a “strippergram” for his mate and a woman dressed as a policewoman (or nearly, I was told that key bits of the uniform, such as the number on the shoulder had to be missing to avoid “impersonating a police officer) would arrive, pretend to interrogate the mate, and then take all her clothes off except her knickers. Childish, but not illegal here, I believe.

Jim Howard August 25, 2005 5:18 PM

I’m a developer, but I work in downtown Austin, Texas. There are often movies fliming on location around here.

Whatever the law says, there are always several off-duty police officers on the set. Between having to deal with traffic, rubberneckers, and fans the police are kept very busy. If an actor is in a police costume that doesn’t add any real workload. They need the cops, costume or no costume.

Glauber Ribeiro August 25, 2005 5:39 PM

Today the rent-a-cop in the place i work asked me to show my employee id before letting me in. I showed it to him, but asked him to show me his first! 🙂

Ralph August 25, 2005 6:01 PM

It’s a detection signature without a well defined context, that triggers on legitimate traffic as a false positive.

Unless it quickly justified it’s false positive rate something like this would be probably be removed from the system.

Roy Owens August 25, 2005 7:30 PM

@Chung Leong

Navy blue is not the only uniform color around. There are browns, tans, blacks, and greens. Why not make the dummy color hot pink? Then anyone seeing a bunch of hot pink cops will know it’s a movie or TV shoot. This would make a disambiguation useful in terms of safety and security, and it should make all kinds of security people happy.

Anonymous actor August 25, 2005 8:21 PM

What happens when a tv show has to show a character’s passport or driver’s license? Will they outlaw that as well? Will Hollywood studios still be able to make fake license plates for cars shown in movies and tv shows?

averros August 25, 2005 9:57 PM

Certainly it should be a crime to
impersonate a police officer.

Certainly it should be a crime to give some segment of population an exclusive right to order others around under the threat of death.

Now, the question to ask is why do most people believe that police officers should have more rights than other citizens?

The issue of determining who’s an officer and who is not is certainly secondary – if every person has the same rights there’s no reason to inflict punishments for pretending to be in the advantaged caste. Why should anyone care if a person catching criminals and talking tough to potential troublemakers is a “real” cop or a volunteer?

Ken Zon August 25, 2005 10:40 PM

Give me a freaking break. THIS is what NYC thinks is a priority in fighting terrorism? Add a $250 million subway monitoring system and you’ve still cut the chance of a terrorist attack by 0%.

X means unknown August 26, 2005 12:17 AM

@Anonymous actor

What happens when a tv show has to show a character’s
passport or driver’s license? Will they outlaw that as well?

Watch the opening to an X-Files rerun some time, and read the exact text on Mulder and Scully’s “FBI” ID cards. “Federal Bureau of ____” and “Department of ____” are the key elements.

Anonymous actor August 26, 2005 1:05 AM

@X means unknown

Watch the opening to an X-Files rerun some time, and read the exact text on Mulder and Scully’s
“FBI” ID cards. “Federal Bureau of ____” and “Department of ____” are the key elements.

Practically noone knows what a real FBI ID looks like, making it easy to believe.

A lot of, and maybe most, people know what a passport looks like and virtually everyone knows what a drivers license looks like.

Dimitris Andrakakis August 26, 2005 2:41 AM

In Greece, what happens is exactly the opposite: There is no effective control on who owns things. Not only uniforms, but also badges and insignia. Military uniforms are especially easy to get a hold of –since all male Greeks have to serve the army for a year, there are stores that sell all kind of military stuff. The same stores sell police stuff too.

Most people are aware of this; it is not uncommon for someone to ask for the policeman’s ID number (it is written in a small metal plate on their shoulder) if the officer is giving them a hard time, i.e. something more than a driving-while-drunk test.

Chris August 26, 2005 6:25 AM

@ averros

There’s something called a social contract. It isn’t an opt-in deal, or even an opt-out deal; if you don’t like it, you can try moving to a place without people, but good luck finding one that’s liveable to any standards. But the contract allows us all to give up rights so we can get protection from our neighbors.

Back in the 1700’s in the US, we didn’t have a strong police force. Whenever anything difficult had to be done in the realm of law enforcement, the sherrif or town council would gather a mob or a posse. These people would act calmly and rationally and serve whatever justice was required. And you didn’t have to join a mob that you disagreed with. That is one key factor enabling the US revolution circa 1770. All citizens were used to enforcing laws.

These days, the word ‘mob’ has a bad connotation; it’s something you can’t reason with. But in revolutionary America, the mob reasons with you!

Anyway, people these days don’t want to serve justice on their own (too dangerous), and they don’t know or trust their neighbors enough, generally, to form a rational, coherent mob. And that’s why we have large, expensive police departments. And why we tolerate civil rights abuses–we’re quick to trust government, less so to trust our own judgment, and rather untrusting of strangers. (A woman yelled at her son the other day for saying hi to me, and she lives across the way. The kid knew that strangers are trustworthy.)

Of course, there’s a problem with mob justice. It’s completely reactive. You can’t call up a mob to stop a crime in progress. But I wonder what would happen if, instead of mandatory military service, a nation mandated that everyone serve with the police department on a part-time basis.

Ed T. August 26, 2005 6:50 AM


“First off it would be good to have some figures on how often people have impersonated police officers, and what real problems that caused. Is there a real problem they are trying to solve, or is this inventing problems to justify budgets?”

I don’t know about NYC, but in the area where I live we have had a rash of robberies, rapes, and other assorted nastiness (some involving children as victims) where the perps were wearing a police uniform. This is particularly concerning because, down here, even a moment’s hesitation in doing anything a police officer says is likely to earn you some serious prison time (if not a bullet or 30), and if you kill a police officer it is tried as capital murder (and “self defense” is NOT a legal defense), and death by drug overdose is likely in your future.

Maureen Hay August 26, 2005 9:55 AM

@Roy Owens

This wouldn’t work because it would look pretty silly when you went to watch Law & Order and the NYPD were all wearing hot pink uniforms!

My understanding, talking to an actor friend, is that especially in LA, extras often provide their own costumes, and get a bit of extra money for doing so.

The problem here is that the police are not the only people with a legitimate need for police uniforms. There are many things that people filming movies need to do that are a bit beyond the law. Film companies work with the police to work around these problems. If police uniforms must come from the costume department and not actor’s private collections, they’ll do it. (Has anyone noticed the retired FBI guy who shows up on Mythbusters whenever they use really dangerous explosives?)

Reminds me of a comment by Billy Wilder (paraphrase) “Who knew it was so important that we get to the moon? They should have asked my props guys, they’d have gotten them there in no time.”

JohnJ August 26, 2005 10:17 AM

@Maureen: Roy was responding to Chung, who mentioned that there’s a technology solution to this. Namely, digitally process the film to replace the hot pink with whatever the native color is. On the set, the actors will be in the pink; on film/DVD it’ll be the standard navy or whatever color.

Personally, I kind of like this idea better than just picking a random but unofficial color. Here in Chicagoland, we’ve over 150 suburbs, each with a PD and a uniform of choice. I drive through 5 suburbs as part of my daily commute. There’s no reasonable way for me to know and keep up with PD uniform styles. Having something radically different or highly unlikely like the pink would be a way for me to know the actor was definitely not a regular officer.

It still wouldn’t ensure that someone wearing the uniform was in fact an officer, but it would reduce the false positives.

jammit August 26, 2005 10:55 AM

But come on, he was carrying it, or else it was actually hidden in a suitcase or back pack. Most of these “problems” happened after the backpack search was implemented. They found plenty of things requireing a court appearance, but no bombs. I feel sorry for the dry cleaner that delivers.

Norman August 26, 2005 11:13 AM

Home of the fearful, land of the largely inhibited…

Sounds to me like the actors would be better off WEARING their police uniforms to work. Less likely to get searched that way!

Eivind Eklund August 26, 2005 12:22 PM

Why are everybody talking of film and TV sets?

I’d think this hit theatre, amateur/low budget filming, and actors working various “small” shows. The big cases would seem likely to be handled anyway.

Bruce Schneier August 26, 2005 12:44 PM

“I’d think this hit theatre, amateur/low budget filming, and actors working various “small” shows. The big cases would seem likely to be handled anyway.”

If small theatres portray policemen, then the terrorists win.

JohnJ August 26, 2005 12:51 PM

@Eivind Eklund: “Why are everybody talking of film and TV sets?”

Probably because the article mentioned statements from the Screen Actors Guild.

But I agree, theater actors represent another ‘exposure’.

Slayton I. Mustgo August 26, 2005 6:59 PM

I’ve heard that one of the actors that often played a policeman in Ed Wood’s films (for ex: Plan 9 from Outer Space) got the parts because he had his own police uniform. Not sure if that level of cheepnis is still common…

Chris Walsh August 27, 2005 4:43 PM


“Is this a good use of police manpower?”

A1: No, for obvious reasons.

A2: Sure, it keeps more cops employed.

Bear in mind that unions in NYC are comparatively strong. Particularly when it comes to movie-related stuff, I would wager that they need to have an IBEW guy on hand to plug everything in, a Teamster (or so) to move every box, etc. That the PBA should want similar treatment when “police materiel” is involved is not at all surprising. Whether this is “good” depends on what you’re trying to maximize.

DarkFire August 28, 2005 7:28 AM

Can’t speak for other countries or cities, but here in the UK any film company that wants to do this will usually let their local constabularly know as a matter of courtesy. If the filming takes place in a sensitive area then it may be the acse that the names & some form of ID are noted for the actors so that if any queriesa arise they can be quickly checked with the minimum of fuss.

Ari Heikkinen August 28, 2005 3:40 PM

Ofcourse impersonating a police officer should be illegal and the penalty for doing so should be severe enough so that people won’t try their luck. How about, instead of having a real police officer around, make the costumes somewhat different so that you could easily recognize they’re not real? Kind of like those 555 phone numbers they use on movies and TV..

On a side note, that idea of “it’s pointless to make anything illegal because bad guys will have it anyway” is pretty stupid. Sure, criminals and terrorists will get access to say explosives and machine guns, but that doesn’t mean the general public should be allowed an easy access to them.

Roger August 28, 2005 10:28 PM

Around here (NSW, Australia), it is illegal, and fairly strictly policed — in fact, policed much more strictly than was my experience in the US. For example, it is definitely not possible to purchase police badges, and security companies are not even permitted to issue rent-a-cop uniforms which are too similar in appearance to police uniforms.

I’m not sure of the details of how film productions get permits for exemptions, but evidently they do because they manage to produce movies with people dressed as the local constabulary. The most recent occasion I saw such a scene being filmed, there was indeed a real cop near the set. Conversely, there was a recent newspaper story of a musician being fined for wearing a police uniform in a performance without the necessary permits.

I don’t know what the rules are for conveying fake uniforms, but if I was a cop who found such an article, I would be extremely suspicious of a claim to be on the way to an acting gig, simply because it’s the most obvious bullshit excuse, and because actors don’t generally take their costumes home. Also several of the articles [1] required to make up a full patrol uniform are also restricted, to the extent that even with a special permit for filming they would need to be locked up in a big mongo safe the moment filming the scene was finished.

It’s clear that, as authentication devices, uniforms are not very strong. They are a little stronger than people seem to think though, since (at least on the local version) the embroidery on the cloth badges, and the casting on the metal ones, is not something a home hobbyist could do so you would need to locate a corrupt professional embroidery shop and a corrupt foundry. Both of these would need to obtain samples to use to copy — photos are inadequate since both the casting and the embroidery are 3-dimensional. Getting samples is also a lot harder than it sounds; only once in recent times have the police lost control of a badge, and (after warning the public about the missing number) they made darn sure they got it back quickly.

Also, in any prolonged interaction you are likely to ask to see the officer’s warrant card, which then brings up the whole issue of forging ID cards. Thus, the protections inherent in the current uniform are adequate to prevent abuse by low grade crooks such as burglars, and only likely to be abused for relatively high-value crimes, or irrationally motivated crimes, and even then only in circumstances where a brief deception is adequate — ie. being used to put the victim off guard while launching the attack, when there won’t be time to examine the details.

Thus I have heard of fake police uniforms used in assassinations overseas (once all the bodyguards have their hands in the air, it’s too late to notice errors in the uniforms), and in this country to abduct young women on lonely roads (once the car is pulled over, again, it’s too late). It’s not clear what a practical response to this could be. I guess that in this country at least, it occurs so rarely no-one sees a further response as being required.

Incidentally I’ve also been told that it is also illegal to wear a military uniform without lawful authority, if it has national or regimental insignia attached. Just the plain cloth without insignia is ok, though. I don’t know if this is true, but it seems reasonable given the requirement under international law of clearly distinguishing soldiers from civilians.

Note 1: NSW has ridiculously restrictive weapons laws, most of which I do not agree with. Be that as it may, of standard police patrol equipment the extensible batons, pepper sprays and handcuffs are all restricted items. Of course pistols are too, but even non-firing replica pistols are restricted if they look too realistic.

Terry Karney August 29, 2005 3:50 AM

In LA the city requires police officers be present on all shoots.

They have to be off duty (which affects some of what they can do) in uniform, and paid OT (which is billed to the porduction company at double time).

It allows for some control of location, gives the production company the bully-boy power of an armed cop, and raises revenue for the city, as well as extra money for the PD.


Ari Heikkinen August 29, 2005 1:37 PM

“In LA the city requires police officers be present on all shoots. They have to be off duty (which affects some of what they can do) in uniform, and paid OT (which is billed to the porduction company at double time).”

Sounds reasonable to me.

NYC safety FIRST January 23, 2006 4:02 AM

The only people that ‘possess and carry’ police uniforms are EXTRAS. Production Companies have more than enough money and police uniforms in their wardrobe departments for ACTORS. No ACTOR is required to bring his/her own ‘police uniform.’

There are NO QUALIFICATIONS to be EXTRAS (i.e. those individuals that walk across a street in a scene, no speaking roles, etc.), so ANY PERSON OFF THE STREET can simply say they are an ‘actor’ and purchase a police uniform.

SOme of these people flash their fake badges at subway and tunnel entrances so that they do not have to pay the fares (NYC police officers do not have to pay fares for public transportation).

These ‘ACTORS’ detained and arrested at a courthouse and at airports were NOT going to work on television and film sets — WHAT WERE THEY DOING WITH THE UNIFORMS?

Other recent cases of impersonating police officers in NYC by so-called actors:
Extras with a police uniform arrested for participating in a drug ring, manufacturing and selling fake badges that were found with drug dealers who used the badges in committing crimes, using uniforms to gain access to film and television sets and private residences.

These EXTRAS carrying around fake uniforms and badges can be ANYONE (criminals, stalkers, ex-cons, etc.), there is no background check on these so-called actors who purchase these uniforms. Remember that guy who attacked and raped a woman in NYC on Halloween — gained access to her apartment due to the fact he possessed and was wearing a FAKE FIREMAN UNIFORM.

There are laws about impersonating police officers for a REASON. I say get them ALL OFF THE STREET.

Gryndyl September 12, 2006 12:05 PM

This can be taken to other extremes. A friend of a friend was wearing a black t-shirt that said ‘POLICE’ on the front on a college campus. He was stopped by the police and has subsequently been ordered to either turn the shirt over or be charged with ‘deceiving the public’.

andrewsilvestri August 28, 2007 12:20 PM

this is unfair to actors we have to make a living also we union actors we should have the right to carry uniforms with perrmission from the productions dept

Peter E Retep October 10, 2007 10:11 AM

Out here in Hollywoodland, fake cops [actors] often are on location so all you can see them. Early one morning a woman collapsed on a sidewalk after taking a looping step. She was in a very expensive suit in a bad part of town. [Why? I don’t know.] I saw two moptorcycle cops on the curb at the bnext corner and asked them to respond. “But we’re just actors.” waiting for a screen cue. So was the black and white at the next corner. But the paramedics? They were real, on scene to uinsure the safety of the film location crew. THEY responded.

Joe Stevens October 21, 2015 12:21 PM

So cops are arresting good honest citizens who are actors and then the cops are going to the movie sets and taking the actors jobs. And the cops are accomplishing this because of their position as a law-enforcement officer and the fact that they have a badge and a gun. There is something really wrong with the society who’s cops do that sort of thing .

Tom Moransky March 18, 2016 1:57 PM

While this information on this blog is from 2001 we are currently in 2016 and things are very different. It has been established that actors can and do infact wear snd posess police uniforms for the sole purpose of wearing them while on set while filming a movie tv show commercial or music video. They are not allowed to commit crimes wearing the uniform or to misrepresent themselves at anytime as a real police officer if they are not. The actors uniform must be covered up with a garment like a coat or sweatshirt or windbreaker or must have the outer garment like a coat turned inside out and the hat removed or on backwards. Anyone who says that it is illegal for an actor to purchase or own a police uniform id absolutely wrong. Also much emphasis has been put on whether the actor is a Sag/Aftra member or not in order to determine the legitimacy of an actor when buying the uniform items, and the truth is that an actors union status or affiliation has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not an actor can lrgally purchase or oen a police uniform. The bottom line is that it is Not illegal for actors to buy and own a police uniform. But of course commiting crimes with a police uniform is. Let’s use our heads people.

Marcus December 16, 2016 10:05 AM

I doubt you will see this ‘Tom” , or any else…
but just how does one go about getting a uniform ‘legit’ then?

Steve J December 30, 2019 1:20 AM

There was a guy arrested at the Belmore Flea Market for selling Police and FD Badges and patches. Yes it is illegal to sell police and FD patches and badges in NYS. Thats the law. You have to go out of state if you need one as a prop etc. but you may not sell them within the state of New York. Meanwhile there are a few people (former NYPD and Transit cops) on FB Marketplace illegally selling the same types of police and Fire badges and patches. One guy has a DEA badge! Another guy has messages out to let others know that he wants Nassau County Police patches! Cmon Facebook! What tge heck. And why do some cops feel that they are above the law?

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