How to Spot Unmarked Police Cars (With Pictures)

Imagine: you’re cruising down the road without a police car in sight. You’re ignoring car safety and pushing the speed limit a bit–then you see flashing lights in your mirror! You unknowingly blew by an unmarked police car and got caught speeding. You might have avoided the situation if you had been able to identify an unmarked police patrol car. Obviously, MotorBiscuit cannot condone breaking the speed limit. But it is handy to know how to identify unmarked police cars, so you can be on your best behavior around them.

Unmarked police cars vs undercover cop cars

2016 Ford Interceptor undercover cop car | Ford Motor Company
2016 Ford Police Interceptor | Ford Motor Company

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According to Lifehacker, an unmarked police cruiser is very different than an undercover cop’s car. When a police officer goes undercover, he or she is posing as someone else–not an active police officer.

During an undercover assignment, this agent could be driving anything. Depending on their cover identity, the police officer might be in a supercar, a beater, or astride a motorcycle. That said, this police officer is busy collecting evidence for a major investigation; they will probably not blow their cover to enforce a misdemeanor offense such as speeding.

An on-duty officer in an unmarked police car is on an entirely different mission. Depending on the state they’re in, they may be allowed to patrol for traffic offenses such as speeding while in an unmarked police car. They may even be allowed to complete traffic stops.

That said, unmarked police cars often have features that give away their status as patrol vehicles.

Is the unmarked car the same make and model as a standard cruiser?

Ford Police Interceptor unmarked police car | Ford Motor Company
Ford Police Interceptor | Ford Motor Company

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There are a finite number of makes and models that North American police departments press into service as patrol cars. Can you picture the car or police SUV your city department and your state troopers usually use for marked patrol vehicles? Chances are that those departments’ unmarked police cars will be the same make and model.

Furthermore, American automakers build special, stripped-down versions of popular SUVs and sedans for police departments’ interceptors. Even unmarked, these vehicles stand out from their civilian counterparts. Firstly, they do not come in flashy colors. Most police departments order white, black, or silver vehicles, then add badges and lettering. Their unmarked cars will be the same color–sans the badges.

Another feature that sets these police “fleet” vehicles apart from civilian cars is their lack of decoration, including fancy rims. Most police cars ride on simple steel rims, often with a small chrome center cap instead of a full-wheel hubcap. Take a look at the picture below.

In addition, police departments also keep their cars very clean with no bumper stickers or vanity plates. See a car on the highway that looks a little too no-frills? It just may be an unmarked police car.

Many unmarked police cars have special, state-issued police license plates that are a different color than regular license plates.

Does the unmarked car have police gear?

Marked Dodge Charger Pursuit with spotlights and "bull bar" unmarked police car | Stellantis
Marked Highway Patrol Dodge Charger Pursuit with spotlights and “bull bar” | Stellantis

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There was a time when unmarked police cars were easy to spot: every last one carried a tall array of radio antennas. Advances in technology have made these trunk lid radio “whips” all but obsolete. But there is still some gear most unmarked patrol cars carry.

Firstly, most police departments outfit their patrol cars with spotlights. Unmarked cars often leverage lightbars inside the windshield, but their spotlights may still give them away. When not in use, these spotlights will look like black pods outside the car, attached between the windshield and front windows. See the above picture for an example.

Next, most police patrol cars feature some additional front bumper protection. The most common is a metal “bull bar” that stretches from the top of the hood to the bottom of the bumper. Some departments use rubber bumpers instead of bull bars.

Finally, police patrol cars come loaded with more electronics than most cars. You may be able to see the profile of a radio box or radar gun above the dashboard or hanging below the rearview mirror. Because a police car is carrying so much gear, its suspension may be maxed out, in which case it will be riding lower than you would expect.

Next, find out whether your state allows unmarked police cars, or see the most popular makes and models for unmarked police cars.

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