At first glance, it would have been easy to mistake 24-year-old Andrew Hammonds for a law enforcement officer.
He was in the driver's seat of a black Ford Explorer, parked perpendicular to Interstate 75 as if he was running radar on passing drivers. His SUV was equipped with blue lights and a siren. Inside, he had a BB gun, a holster, police decals and black license plates with a blue line through the middle, popularly known as the "police thin blue line" plate.
But he's not a police officer. He's not a deputy. And he's not a trooper. He's just a guy.
Hammonds was arrested Wednesday and charged with criminal impersonation and unlawful possession of blue lights after Chattanooga police noticed his SUV and stopped to investigate. At first, he told police he was having car trouble and had just stopped there, according to the arrest report.
But the arresting officer noticed he seemed nervous, and kept asking questions. Then, Hammonds claimed he was attending a police academy for the Hamilton County Sheriff. That is not true, said Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Janice Atkinson.
"He is in no way affiliated with the Hamilton County Sheriff," she said.
Yet Hammonds sat on the side of I-75, around mile marker three in East Brainerd, in a black SUV with flashing lights and a siren. Police don't know whether he pulled anyone over that day, or whether he had done this type of thing before.
Police Chief Fred Fletcher said events like this are fairly rare, but there are several key ways drivers can stay safe if they're unsure whether the flashing blue lights behind them belong to a bona fide officer.
"If you have any concerns it might not be a police officer, don't stop anywhere that's not well-lit and populated," Fletcher said. "Obey traffic laws and turn on your flashers to indicate you acknowledge they're behind you. If you obey the laws and proceed to the first safe place with lighting and people, our officers will be understanding. And if they're not [understanding], call my office or Internal Affairs and I will correct that."
Another option for wary drivers is to call 911, Fletcher added. The 911 dispatchers are aware of every legitimate traffic stop and will be able to determine whether the stop is a fraud.
If drivers are face-to-face with the officer, or if someone is confronted while walking, the best option is to ask for the officer's photo I.D., Fletcher said.
"Not just a badge," he said. "The photo I.D.s are fairly distinctive, and they have very specific information about hair color, height, weight and signature."
Hammonds will appear in Hamilton County Sessions Court on Aug. 13 for a preliminary hearing. He was also charged with having an expired license and impersonating a licensed professional.
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or firstname.lastname@example.org with tips or story ideas.
Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...