As the three men rifled through his pockets and upended beds in his Southeast Baltimore home, Moises Pacheco says he spotted a small detail that made him begin to suspect the intruders were not the police officers they claimed to be.
One of the men had a walkie-talkie, and it looked like a children's toy, said Pacheco, a native of Ecuador who has lived in Baltimore for the past eight years and speaks limited English. After the men found $1,800 in his wallet — money he says he planned to use to purchase a car — they took off running.
Baltimore has seen a string of recent robberies involving thieves who used fake badges and other props — anything to convey an aura of police authority — to lull victims into cooperating, if only initially. The scheme is not new, but several such robberies and home invasions have garnered publicity in recent months and raised concerns about a blurring of the thin blue line.
"It's been a continued problem," said Baltimore police Lt. Rob Morris of the intelligence section. "The unfortunate reality is that you can buy some of these little badges just about anywhere."
The Police Department has a large contingent of plainclothes officers working in high-crime neighborhoods who typically wear casual clothing and a badge around their neck — an easy uniform to mimic. The department also sometimes carries out "no-knock" raids, in which a judge authorizes police to storm a home without knocking.
Police officials say they have implemented safeguards, and some additional precautions have been recommended.
Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, said no-knock raids are rare and reserved for violent individuals, and officers are required to show IDs. Police routinely urge residents to call 911 if they have any concerns about whether officers are legitimate, and Morris said impersonator crimes make it even more imperative that police demonstrate on demand that they are true officers by displaying IDs and badges.
This month, an independent commission reviewing the shooting of Officer William Torbit, a plainclothes officer who was mistakenly shot and killed by fellow officers, recommended that the department also institute a clear identifying uniform or jacket for officers working in such a capacity.
Morris said most police-impersonator victims are targeted, as perpetrators use the ruse to ambush people they believe have money or drugs.
There have been at least nine such incidents reported throughout the city since late June, as well as one in Anne Arundel County this week. Comprehensive statistics are difficult to compile because the offenses are recorded in the broad categories of robbery or assault.
In one string of cases, groups of men have posed as plainclothes officers, rushing into homes as if carrying out a raid or shaking people down on the street. Another string of incidents has targeted Hispanic residents, who are generally at risk for robberies because of the expectation that they carry cash, speak limited English and may be reluctant to call police to report the crime.
The scheme can be highly effective, according to criminologists.
"From an early age, we're taught to give a lot of respect and power to police, and they know that they can exploit people's willingness to be compliant," said N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "They know people will open up the door if they see a badge. They're afraid and intimidated."
Officials worry that impersonator crimes can undermine the public's trust. Robert F. Cherry, president of the city police union, said he's concerned that some people might not contact the police and may never know that it was an impersonator who robbed them. "They go tell their family and friends, and that's a tough thing to rectify," Cherry said.
Christopher Smith, 33, was sleeping in bed with his girlfriend and their 4-month-old baby this summer when three men kicked in the door to their Northeast Baltimore home on Medford Road, ran upstairs yelling "Police!" and zip-tied him, according to court records. They demanded "the money."
Smith realized that the men were not officers and moved to confront them, and he was shot in the neck, authorities said. Police say they believe the motive was drug-related: Court records show Smith has pending drug and firearms charges.
Police also have made arrests in some recent impersonator crimes, including the arrest of Ioannis Skordalos, 35, of Essex, who is accused of entering a home in the 1800 block of E. Lombard St. with a badge around his neck and holding a clipboard with pictures of Hispanic men. He and two others allegedly went through the house and told the occupants to comply or they would "call Immigrations and Customs Enforcement."
Police said they suspected Skordalos because he had been charged in a previous crime. He was charged in the fake immigration raid on Oct. 4, the day after Pacheco was robbed in a similar fashion.