Why would someone pretend to be an officer? | HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com
Why would someone pretend to be an officer? (Hilarious Pictures)
By Janie Bryant
© November 29, 2009
A car flew down Albany Street, and when it came back the other way, two of Jessica-Lee Roberts' neighbors waved at the motorist to slow down.
It was an older-model, unmarked state trooper's car and the young man behind the wheel told them he was an undercover police officer, Roberts said.
He returned to the Portsmouth neighborhood a second night. He got out of his car at a youth center, walked around the building with a flashlight and asked residents if they had seen a suspicious vehicle, according to a witness statement in court records.
Roberts was skeptical, but residents wanted police to patrol the community more. So they bought his story. One resident told the young man to feel free to stop at her house if he needed to use the bathroom when working their streets.
It wasn't until a real police officer showed up that New Gosport residents learned they had been duped.
In reality, Joseph Henry Ward was an 18-year-old pizza delivery driver.
Almost a year later, Ward apologized in court at his sentence hearing. Judge Kenneth R. Melvin looked perplexed. "What is up with you?" he asked.
It's a good question for at least 18 individuals who were convicted in South Hampton Roads courts over the past three years for impersonating police. A review of news accounts and court records shows the answer is not always clear.
Some may be police wannabes living out their Hollywood-fueled hero fantasies in the real world. Others have more sinister motives. Innocent people stop for flashing lights only to be robbed or assaulted.
Unfortunately, counterfeit cops are not uncommon.
This year, two motorists reported being pulled over by bogus officers in Chesapeake. One flashed what looked like a toy police badge. Another drove a car with a blue dashboard light and a siren. He asked a woman for her license and registration and told her to get out of the car, but returned them and left quickly when a real patrolman happened by.
Some events are even more troubling. In 2004, a man was arrested after stopping women on the road in Portsmouth, handcuffing them and sexually assaulting them. Kenneth A. Downer, a convicted sex offender, got 27 years in prison.
Chesapeake officials cited those cases in a pending request to state lawmakers to make it a felony to impersonate police with the intention of committing a crime or circumventing security measures. Currently, the offense is a misdemeanor. Even less serious cases put an added burden on police officers trying to enforce the law.
"If citizens cannot have confidence the person stopping them is a law enforcement officer, it makes it difficult to perform our jobs," said Chesapeake police Chief Kelvin Wright.
In 2008, a Virginia Beach woman called 911 from her home to verify that the man banging on her door about 3 a.m., saying she was under arrest, was in fact an officer of the police department.
Police responded, and the poser used two sticks to form a cross as they came toward him. After an officer told him to drop them, he uttered an obscenity and began performing martial arts movements, according to court records.
He went as far as to tell the Beach police that he was one of them. He also told them he had taken acid and smoked marijuana prior to the incident.
It wasn't the first time Virginia Beach had been plagued by an imposter. Bryon Fritz gained local infamy for his repeat performances of police work. He was so incorrigible that in 2000 a judge made him wear a sandwich board outside the courthouse that warned others: "Do not violate your suspended sentence or probation or you may find yourself doing this."
In Portsmouth, Ward said he has learned his lesson.
The teenager, who expects to be released from jail soon, said he was trying to deliver a pizza and had trouble finding the address that December night in 2008. He agrees a New Gosport resident flagged him down, but says the man looked at him and asked if he was a police officer.
"I thought for a moment and then I said 'Yes,' " he said.
The next night, he said, he went back on another pizza delivery and saw some of the same people. That time, he didn't tell them he was an officer, he said, but they assumed it.
He denies having "Portsmouth PD" patches on his shirt, as some of the witnesses reported to police. Ward said it was dark and the only insignia he was wearing was Domino's Pizza.
He said he bought the State Police car at auction simply because it was a bargain. But he admits he gave in to the temptation of letting people think he was an officer.
"Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a police officer. So just the thought that somebody thought that I was..." His voice trailed off.
"But I had no malicious intent," he said.
Ward said he knew it was against the law but was surprised when he got jail time. He was convicted of seven counts of impersonating a police officer because of the number of people he misled over the course of those two nights in New Gosport. Last month, he apologized in court and said he had acted "immaturely and like a fool." He appeared to tremble as he sat next to his lawyer that day.
He was given nine months. Because it is a misdemeanor, Ward expects that he will get credit for good behavior and have to serve only half the time.
Ward said he agreed to talk because he hopes it might deter someone else from making the same mistake.
"I messed up my life and I can't do what I had wanted to do."
Janie Bryant, (757) 446-2453, email@example.com