Around 5 p.m. yesterday in Liberty City, a New Times staffer drove past a white Toyota Camry sedan with an Uber sticker on its windshield.
Seconds later, red and blue lights flashed from inside the vehicle. The seeming Uber ride was actually an undercover patrol car almost certainly belonging to the Miami Police Department, and it was pulling over someone driving a silver Nissan Maxima sedan near NW 54th Street and NW Seventh Avenue. The Camry was clearly an undercover cop car — lights were mounted
The New Times employee then watched a red undercover Nissan Murano SUV (with "family" stick figures on the rear window) roll up behind the fake Uber. The staffer saw the officers remove a gun from the silver Maxima. It's unclear if anyone was arrested.
This is not the first time a city police department has been caught passing its cruisers off as fake Uber rides: In July 2017, Vice News reporter (and former New Times writer) Allie Conti published photos of some sort of law enforcement vehicle used to transport cops who arrested a man in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That car seemed nearly identical to the one the New Times employee spotted yesterday: The silver Ford had an Uber sticker on the windshield but also had hidden mounted police lights that could be switched on at a moment's notice.
In that instance, Uber also confirmed it had no knowledge of any undercover enforcement actions going down across New York City. (The New York Police Department also operates an undisclosed number of undercover cars disguised as yellow taxi cabs.)
In May 2016, Vice's Motherboard reported that the Philadelphia Police Department had plastered a fake Google Maps sticker on the side of a surveillance vehicle and pretended the car was gathering information for Google's Street View project. Instead, the car was sucking up data on civilians via license-plate-reading technology.
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The question, of course, is whether the scheme is ethical or legal. Dennis Kenney, a former Florida police officer and current professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, says he wasn't aware of any law that would prevent local cops from posing as fake members of a company, but he says the department might run into trouble if the company itself objects.
"As long as the person they’re pretending to be is OK with it, I can't think of any law preventing them from doing that," he says.
So why would cops want to pretend to be Uber drivers? Well, Kenney says the cars could give officers extra cover. Observers might grow suspicious if they saw an unmarked car drive by three or four times, he says. But Uber drivers are always circling the block looking for customers.
"If, say, you're around nightclubs or wherever Uber does a lot of activity, you could get away with cruising by slowly," Kenney explains. "It might give [police] an opportunity to hang out in an area where they otherwise couldn't."