Action News Jax Investigates: Protecting yourself from officer impersonators

Action News Jax Investigates: Protecting yourself from officer impersonators

You are alone in your car when you see a flashing light behind you, an unmarked car trying to pull you over.

Recently drivers, particularly women, have been targeted by officer impersonators. Action News Jax rode along with Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels to show you what to do in those critical moments to keep yourself safe.

Cristian Leon had pictures online of himself in uniform, including one with a gun on his hip. So when he made a traffic stop at a Florida gas station, the woman he pulled over thought he was a real officer.

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But Leon was a fake.

When the victim faced Leon in court, she testified that he threatened to arrest her if she didn’t expose herself. She told the court she was scared that she was going to be robbed or raped.

Sheriff Daniels said, “I personally feel like women are being targeted because they are perceived to be easy prey.”

St. Johns County deputies and JSO investigated a report of a police impersonator after a woman said a man in a tan uniform flashed his lights and forced her to stop off I-95 as she was headed to work.

Sheriff Daniels said he understands the anxiety people feel when they get pulled over. “I’m the sheriff of the county and if a marked police vehicle gets behind me I'm like, ‘Oh Lord, it’s the cops.'"

The sheriff said officer impersonators prey on that vulnerability and try to catch people off guard.

From music to the GPS, to cellphones and the stress of the day, these are all examples of things that can distract us -- not just from the roads but our surroundings. Sheriff Daniels says situational awareness is extremely important -- especially if you're pulled over.

That awareness helped Sandra McDearmon and her passenger. They immediately picked up on red flags when they were pulled over by a fake cop in Largo.

McDearmon said, “He told me he was pulling me over due to texting and driving, which was not possible. I didn’t have my phone on me.”

If you're being pulled over and have doubts, Sheriff Daniels says you should put your hazards on, slow down and call 911 to verify the officer is legit. Then find a well-lit, populated area before you pull over.

Sheriff Daniels said you should be on alert as the person approaches your car. He said, “as the person comes up, I'm going back into safe mode. Door locked. Windows cracked a bit and let’s see what their intentions are.”

The sheriff says drivers should feel empowered to ask questions. It's also your right.

It's not unfair to ask for those credentials. The sheriff added, “A person like that who hasn't done or taken the steps to be certified -- and then they are pulling people over -- they might have a screw loose and I would treat them accordingly.”

The sheriff said you can call law enforcement to verify a traffic stop even after the fact. He said legitimate officers call in traffic stops and there should be a record of it.