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Nearly every driver knows the feeling when flashing blue and red lights appear in the rearview mirror. While police presence on the roads helps improve car safety, most motorists still appreciate being able to spot cop cars easily. Law enforcement officers typically use undercover and unmarked police cars to go undetected, so they often surprise drivers when they make their presence known. But did you know there are differences between undercover and unmarked police cars?

Why are some cop cars disguised?

Flashing police car lights, highlighting high-speed chase in Wisconsin that knocked out power for residents
Police car lights flashing | Scott Rodgerson via Unsplash

Police cars generally stand out. Their flashing lights and official decals are signs that the authorities are present on the road. However, specific situations require police officers to drive unmarked or undercover cars.

These vehicles might be disguised for various reasons. Police officers generally use undercover cars for sting operations or major investigations when anonymity is paramount. On the other hand, unmarked police cars are more widely used. These vehicles patrol for traffic infractions such as speeding or running red lights. 

What’s the difference between an unmarked and an undercover police car?

Even though civilians often lump undercover and unmarked police cars together, there are some significant distinctions between the two beyond their uses.

Unmarked cars are still presented as official vehicles. Most have police lights on or inside the car in a less prominent place.

Conversely, undercover police cars typically look like regular vehicles. They don’t present as law enforcement cars, so they can navigate tricky situations where a standard police car might draw suspicion or unwanted attention. Undercover and unmarked vehicles come in various makes and models, from sports cars to pickup trucks. 

How to spot unmarked and undercover cop cars

Your local police department probably won’t announce its number of undercover or unmarked police cars, but there are some ways to identify these vehicles.

One way to spot unmarked cars is by their license plates. They might have municipal or exempt tags and be missing the registration sticker. However, that varies by state and department. In addition, unmarked cars might have common law enforcement equipment, such as lights on the grille and side mirrors and dark tints on the windows.

According to Life Hacker, the most popular unmarked police cars in the United States and Canada include the Chevrolet Tahoe PPV, Dodge Durango Pursuit, Ford Police Interceptor Utility, and Ford F-150 Police Responder.

Undercover police vehicles are much harder to spot than unmarked cars. Life Hacker reports that police departments select these models to suit each operation. Therefore, undercover vehicles could be anything from expensive sports cars to beat-up trucks to luxury sedans. And they don’t show signs of official use, such as emergency lights.

But if you think you see an undercover car, the best thing to do is keep your distance. The officer is likely working on a highly sensitive or dangerous case.