FORT WAYNE – While traveling down the road, an unmarked white car with a small spotlight comes into focus.
Most drivers signal to move into another lane or quickly pump the brakes, hoping to avoid a ticket.
Others might inch closer to the car to get a good look at the person inside.
Police Chief Rusty York said sometimes it takes even an experienced eye a second glance to tell if one of his officers is in the driver’s seat.
I see those white cars with the old police spotlight out there, and I really have to look to make sure it’s not one of ours, York said. I know the difference, because I know what to look for, but sometimes it takes me a minute.
Old cruisers bought at auction and even new models that look like unmarked police cars cause some concern among law enforcement officials such as York. A rumor last month of a man impersonating an officer in a cruiser-like car highlighted those concerns.
Yet there are few restrictions related to police cars sold at auctions to civilians – including only basic boundaries when it comes to reinstalling equipment used by officers, officials say.
Most city police vehicles are Chevy Impalas, but the department does own several Chevy Tahoe SUVs and Ford Explorers, York said.
York said unmarked squad cars can usually be spotted because they have Indiana police license plates and emergency light units in the front and back. But not all city vehicles have the specialty plates, he added.
Overhead lights on police vehicles in Fort Wayne and Allen County are blue and red, not just one color. One-colored flashing lights in blue, green or yellow are typically volunteer firefighters or paramedics.
If drivers want to buy retired police cars and spend the money on push bar-style bumpers, lights or other items to make the car appear to look like a police vehicle, there are no laws restricting the purchase of such items. But there are a few stipulations, said Sgt. Ron Galaviz, Indiana State Police spokesman.
State law prohibits Hoosiers from using red and white or red and blue lights on nonemergency vehicles and anyone buying a former police vehicle that has been painted in two-tone colors has to have it repainted before it can be driven on a public highway.
Hoosiers are also prohibited from using a police radio to transmit over a frequency used by emergency personnel, but no law exists to discourage the use of antennas and cameras in cars.
Galaviz said drivers have numerous rights when it comes to what is OK to put in vehicles, but that flexibility can be a problem.
It becomes a problem when someone has a sinister agenda. When they are trying to make traffic stops or acting like an officer, he said.
We understand that it is a concern, especially an agency like us that uses undercover cars.
Last month, a rumor circulating about a man driving a white car and impersonating a police officer spread online, causing local law enforcement headaches as they tried to calm the public’s fears.
According to an email circulated by two local hospitals, the man was seen wearing some sort of uniform and carrying a clipboard as he stopped women on Interstate 469.
Police officials for the Allen County Sheriff’s Department and Fort Wayne Police Department would not confirm the information being shared by the hospitals, and the Indiana State Police said they were aware of rumors circulating about a possible police impersonator.
Still, the discussion stirred up controversy among local law enforcement agencies about look-alike police vehicles.
Getting to auction
Basic patrol cars, used by most city police officers, cost about $19,700 each, said Marty Bender, a city councilman and deputy police chief who helps manage the fleet of city police vehicles.
After a purchase has been arranged, the department adds sirens and auxiliary lights, but the vehicles come pre-wired from the factory, he said.
We try to get rid of our vehicles when they have more than about 110,000 miles up to about 150,000 miles, Bender said.
At that point, most of the cars are seven, eight, maybe nine years old.
Patrol cars, which undergo a greater amount of wear and tear might last only seven years, while a detective’s vehicle should last close to 10 years, he said.
Once a vehicle has reached the desired mileage or age, the department is required by law to auction the vehicles, Bender said.
Each year, about 45 to 50 city cars are sent to the Indiana Auto Auction.
Eric Autenrieth, general manager at Indiana Auto Auction, said the cars come in about twice a year but usually aren’t on the lot for long.
We have dealers that specialize in that type of vehicle, and they want to buy as many as they can, he said.
Autenrieth said some of the cars are sold to independent buyers, but most are sold to dealers who sell the cars as taxi cabs in larger metro areas, or transport them out of the country. Buyers can purchase the vehicles at the auction or can bid online.
All of the units that come in are de-identified. Any police labels or badges are removed and lights and everything have been taken off, he said. There will be some nicks and dings on them, but they are maintained fairly well.
The cars will sell at auction from about $2,500 to $4,000, Autenrieth said.
Bender said the department usually receives a return of about $3,000 for the used vehicles, less depending on the vehicle’s condition.
Indiana State Police vehicles are returned to the state where they are placed on an online public auction, Galaviz said.
Each police post is responsible for getting its vehicles to the state, he said. The money they receive is returned to the state’s general fund, Galaviz added.
Sheriff’s department vehicles are disposed of in much the same way as the city, said Cpl. Jeremy Tinkel, sheriff’s department spokesman.
When our officers are using those cars to patrol, they are running them sometimes eight hours a day, Tinkel said. Things start to break and it ends up costing more to fix them than to get rid of them.
We need to have reliable transportation for our officers.