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Can Always Spot a Cop

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Bud: Merry Christmas.
Lynn: [very short pause as she looks at him] Merry Christmas to you, officer.
Bud: That obvious, huh?
Lynn: It's practically stamped on your forehead.

This trope occurs in works of fiction when characters can tell someone is a police officer upon first meeting them. It doesn't matter what the circumstances are, and the character who identifies them as a cop can be either good or bad. Can be either played for laughs or played straight. If played straight, it can be a casual, no-stress encounter wherein they simply observe that someone is clearly a cop. Conversely, if a cop has infiltrated a criminal organization but has only dealt with underlings, it can happen when someone more senior in the organization, like the Big Bad, shows up and suddenly yells "what's wrong with you idiots? Can't you tell he's a cop?"

Tends to happen mostly with male cops. Female cops in fiction, who are also usually a Fair Cop, are much better at not being identified as cops. This also helps when they get revealed as a Dirty Harriet.

This can be Truth in Television, but not always. In Real Life, criminal gangs and drug cartels are extremely suspicious of new people, and not only must you be introduced by a trusted person who knows you if you wish to join, but being welcomed with open arms upon first meeting and being trusted with all the juicy details of the entire operation isn't going to happen.

Subtrope of Cops and Detectives and Career-Revealing Trait. Sister trope to Must State If You're a Cop. Can also be found when Sherlock Scan or Spotting the Thread is in play.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Surprisingly, despite being unbelievably stupid, Isaac in Baccano! is able to immediately identify an undercover cop and allow him and Miria to avoid arrest.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: Year One
    • Downplayed with Bruce's first night out crimefighting. Stan the pimp can tell he's someone in disguise, though he (understandably) mistakes Bruce for a vice cop instead of an independent vigilante.
      That crazy vet bit...thas old, man.
    • Later on, Batman himself plays the trope straight, identifying all the cops in a sting (meant to catch him) by name.
  • The Flash: Captain Cold does this, which makes sense as his own abusive dad was a cop. Invoked when he aids the Suicide Squad and meets Shade the Changing Man.
    Captain Cold: You're a cop, ain't ya?
    Shade: I'm a security officer, yes. How did you...
    Captain Cold: Cops is cops, pal, doesn't matter what "zone" they're from.
    Captain Boomerang: Ah, Lenny, me old chum, you always could sniff a jacko straight off!
  • The Punisher: Frank is very good at spotting cops. One reason is that his line of work requires him to avoid them (although many writers have made it clear that most street cops wholeheartedly approve of his war on crime and don't put any effort into apprehending him). Another reason is that he is very careful to make certain there aren't any undercover police officers present when he targets criminals. It's one of the reasons why he surveils his targets for a considerable length of time while planning the hit. His internal monologue during one encounter highlights both this trope and his Sherlock Scan abilities:
    The Punisher: This guy says he's homeless. Put some effort into looking the part. Tattered clothes. Rundown shoes. Unshaven. But he obviously works out. Being homeless doesn't come with a gym membership. Those teeth are in real good shape. Regular brushing and flossing and trips to the dentist. Homelessness doesn't have a dental plan. The tinted contact lenses don't help either. Definitely a cop.
  • Spider-Man: Spider-Man goes hot and cold with this trope. He doesn't really encounter police officers except when they're trying to arrest him, or when he's swinging in to give them a hand. Peter is observant and intelligent enough to pick up subtle clues that someone is a cop, but not consistently. His Spider-Sense does sometimes warn him that someone is carrying a gun, but that's only when they have hostile intentions toward him. Therefore it normally doesn't ping on undercover cops that he's around either in his civilian identity or as Spider-Man, since they don't usually have any hostile intentions towards him in either guise.
  • Superman: Thanks to his X-ray vision, it's pretty easy for Superman to spot an undercover or plainclothes cop because he can see their badge, handcuffs, police-issue sidearm, etc.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Airheads: A record executive knocks on the doors asking to be let in to make a deal with the protagonists. They ask him which side he took in the Van Halen/David Lee Roth split. The executive says Van Halen and everyone, even the hostages, out him as a cop for such a stupid answer.note . They give him another shot by asking who would win in a fight, Lemmy or God. He says Lemmy, which is wrong, then God, also wrong. The answer: Lemmy is God. They send him packing, and he is later shown with the cops wearing a badge.
  • Angel (1984): The titular "Angel" identifies the undercover vice cop the second she hops in his car. Knowing she is probably being recorded, she says nothing to identify herself as a prostitute, specifically states she is underage, and asks the cop to let her out as she sees a friend waiting on the sidewalk. Without a leg to stand on, the vice cop has no option but to comply.
  • Candy Man: Played with. The two female leads are graduate students researching urban legends. When they have to visit a high-crime area as part of their investigation, they deliberately dress in a manner that suggests that they are cops in order to not be harassed. It works, as soon as they arrive and get out of their car, several locals hanging out immediately start calling out that they are cops while keeping their distance.
  • The Departed: Played with. In one scene, two members of the criminal gang are hanging out on the street and one of them starts joking that he can always spot a cop. According to him, if someone ignores you, they're a cop. He then proceeds to say that every single person walking by is undercover because they're all ignoring them. The twist is, he's actually an undercover police officer himself.
  • Die Hard: Despite only talking to John on the radio for a few minutes, and with John being very careful not to divulge any information about himself because he knows the crooks are listening, Powell swiftly ascertains that John is a fellow cop.
  • Dog Day Afternoon. During the bank robbery, the vehicle that will transport everyone to the airport arrives. The man driving it claims to be just a driver. Sonny (one of the bank robbers) asks him to drive them to the airport. After initially declining, the man eventually agrees to do so. Sonny then tells him to "Take a walk, cop!", refusing to use him. Later, the man is seen standing with the law enforcement officials as one of them, showing that Sonny was correct: he is a cop.
  • In the film version of L.A. Confidential, the first time Detective Bud White meets his future love interest Lynn, they're both in a liquor store. Bud is wearing plain clothes and Lynn hasn't seen anything to indicate that he's a cop. Nonetheless, when he impulsively wishes her a Merry Christmas, she only needs a moment to assess him before replying "Merry Christmas, officer." Bud is simultaneously impressed with her and sheepishly embarrassed that it's that obvious that he's a cop.
  • The Naked Gun: In the third installment of the series, when Frank infiltrates Rocco Dillon's gang, Rocco's mother is suspicious of him from the start, even claiming that she can "smell cop on him".
  • Sea of Love: Al Pacino's character Frank Keller is a plainclothes detective who runs into this twice. First when they're on an undercover operation, one woman tells him he has "cop's eyes" and angrily leaves when he says he isn't. The second time, he's in a shoe store. Two men come in. By their ethnicity, dress, mannerisms, and way of talking, it's heavily implied they are low-level mobsters. Keller starts staring them down. One of them takes offense and starts to confront Keller, only to have his friend tell him to back off because Keller is clearly a cop.
  • Teachers (1984) has a subplot of an undercover officer in the high school, posing as a student. No one is fooled, to the point where the students feed him bullshit information just for laughs. Even the Principal knows all about it. At one point, when uniformed cops are in the school and the undercover officer is in the background, the Principal points him out and asks the cops if they know he's failing English.
  • In Training Day, shortly after Jake meets Alonzo (a secretly Corrupt Cop who leads a special police unit that Jake is trying to get into), Alonzo orders Jake to try to buy from a street drug dealer. Despite them being in plain clothes and riding around in Alonzo's Cool Car, the dealer can instantly tell Jake is a cop because of how he asks for drugs. Although Alonzo later hints that he is already familiar with Blue, so he might have just recognized Alonzo and logically concluded that Jake was also a cop.
    Blue: What you need, homey?
    Jake Hoyt: Crack. 20 bucks' worth.
    Blue: Crack? Smells like bacon in this muthafucka. What I look like, a sucka to you, nigga? Fuck you, rookie.
  • Vice Squad: The main character Princess is an experienced prostitute who is very good at avoiding getting busted because she can spot an undercover cop posing as a prospective client from a mile away. Even a cop utilizing a pretty good Jamaican accent doesn't fool her for a minute.
  • xXx: Xander Cage can spot police in his native America but also in the eastern bloc countries he visits, going so far as to point them out to establish his bona fides with the Russian mafia. Of course, he was actually on a mission with said Czech agent; his cunning isn't in that he was able to spot the guy (although he does invoke it), but having the foresight to realize his local handler was more useful as a tool to infiltrate the mob than as a partner.

  • In the Stephen King novel The Dark Half, George Stark, the come-to-life evil alter ego of the writer protagonist (it's complicated) has just murdered one of the people on his kill list, knows the police are on the way, and is stealthily leaving the scene. While hidden, Stark sees a black man dressed in wraparound shades, hi-top sneakers, and an I LOVE NY t-shirt (it was the '80s after all), running towards the crime scene. Stark wryly thinks that when cops go undercover they just can't seem to help themselves and dress so over the top and stereotypical that instead of disguising them it winds up being obvious that they're cops because their "disguises" are too stereotypical to possibly be real. As far as Stark is concerned, the man might as well be carrying around a sign that reads "I AM A POLICE OFFICER."
  • In the Discworld, the Ankh-Morpork City Watch realizes how badly it needs undercover detectives when several well-known street faces are sent out on missions where they have to pretend to be members of the public. It simply doesn't work — especially when it transpires that people who spend their whole working lives in uniform are simply out of the habit of wearing civilian clothes and might have, in the case of veteran sergeant Fred Colon, a very old civilian suit that last fitted him when he was younger and slimmer a couple of decades before. And Captain Carrot's idea of going undercover involves completely unconvincing items of disguise that make him look like Mr. Potato Head. By the end of the book Men at Arms, Commander Vimes has seen the need for a dedicated plainclothes detective force.
    • By Maskerade, it's invoked. The undercover police officers consist of Sergeant Detritus, a troll who is too big to wear disguises, Corporal Nobby Nobbs, who carries around a card signed by the midwife confirming that he's (probably) human, and Andre. Detritus and Nobby are there to draw attention away from the real undercover cop.
  • In the novelization for Lethal Weapon, this is played with. Riggs is introduced as being in the middle of a days-long drinking binge. (In the movie version, many of these scenes were filmed but cut to improve time and pacing.) He hasn't slept, bathed, or stopped drinking for days, and several friends of his are telling him how terrible he looks. He dismisses all of them and doesn't listen. He only starts to realize how far he's fallen when he encounters police officers and they react to him with suspicion. He's stunned to realize that it's because they can't recognize that he's a cop, because he looks so bad.
  • Defied in the Lord Peter Wimsey book "Murder Must Advertise", when Parker instructs a subordinate to make a covert investigation of a pub, and reminds him to make sure the men he uses don't do anything stupid like wearing their police boots.
  • While My Pretty One Sleeps: Nicky Sepetti bragged that could always "smell a cop". His claim may be accurate given that he almost instantly pegs Carmen Machado, a new member of the gang who joined while he was in prison, as an undercover cop. Machado, whose real name is Tony Vitale, is indeed a cop. Sepetti scathingly tells Joey — who accepted Machado into the gang — that he's a moron who failed to do a thorough background check on Machado. After Tony is shot by the gang, the cops correctly guess that Sepetti was the one who blew his cover.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Andor, an undercover ISB agent named Corv is stationed on Ferrix to spy on Cassian's closest friends and family, in the hopes that observing them will help lead the ISB to Cassian. He's not an outright bad undercover agent, but he quickly gets made, including by Cinta, who is doing essentially the same job Corv is, except for Luthen's Rebel cell. When seen among native residents of Ferrix, he looks slightly off, mostly because he seems too clean and his clothes too well cared for to truly blend in with the mostly working-class locals, whose main occupation is the dirty job of scrapping and breaking down spaceships. During the riot in the first season finale, Cinta manages to tail and then kill him without much effort.
  • Better Call Saul: Saul starts to sell untraceable throwaway cellphones to every criminal in Albuquerque during the year he's suspended as a lawyer. Not illegal, but definitely skeevy. When he's approached by a plainclothes police officer, Saul immediately recognizes him as such.
  • Hilariously subverted in the Breaking Bad episode "Better Call Saul", which first introduced the character of Saul Goodman. A guy approaches meth dealer Badger trying to score, and despite Badger being The Ditz, he laughs the guy off, saying he knows the guy is an undercover cop, and points out nearby vehicles he insists are police vehicles acting as surveillance/backup. The guy tries to claim he isn't a cop, shows that he's not wearing a wire, and finally convinces Badger by using the "undercover cops have to admit they are if you directly ask them" myth. Badger sells him some meth, only to find that his intuition was right when the guy pulls a gun and badge and arrests him. (And every vehicle Badger pointed out swoops in during the arrest).
  • Cold Case: Played for Laughs. In the episode "The Crossing" Nick Vera walks into a steakhouse, before had can show a badge or say a word, the host says "How can I help you, detective?" Apparently, his shoes gave him away.
  • Columbo: In "Undercover," when Columbo has to go undercover to find pieces of a jigsaw puzzle revealing the location of bank robbery money, one of the persons of interest, Geraldine Ferguson (played by Peter Falk's wife Shera Danese) immediately susses out that he's a cop before Columbo has barely gotten more than a few words in.
  • CSI: NY:
    • Zig-zagged in the Season 1 finale, "What You See Is What You See". Counterfeiters pick Mac's favorite diner to meet. As Mac enters for breakfast, having just come from the gym and dressed in a white t-shirt, a zip-up hoodie, and casual pants, one of them spots him and immediately coughs, trying to alert the other. The guy doesn't pick up on it and after he's caught, the detective calls him out on it:
      Mac: Boyd made me the second he saw me, but you? You wouldn't know a cop if one walked right by you.
    • In another episode, Danny and Flack chase and nab a suspect after he runs. When they catch him, he tells them, "You two look like cops, just so you know that."
  • Subverted both In-Universe and on a meta level in the pilot episode of Firefly. When the crew takes on three passengers to supplement their earnings, Mal is clearly immediately suspicious of Simon, and Simon's clothes, Sinister Shades, and the dark musical chords that follow him likely make the audience suspicious of him as well. Not only is Simon not an undercover fed as Mal initially surmises, he's actually on the run from the law, and the actual undercover cop is the passenger that both Mal and the audience paid the least attention to out of the three, whose only onscreen lines had been reminding Kaylee of his name and saying a single sentence at dinner.
  • Hightown: Ray in the garage. He's instantly made by Osito in a single glance, who says he can always tell if someone's a cop.
  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: Played with. Carisi was a detective for years before he became a prosecutor. In "At Midnight in Manhattan" (Carisi's fifth episode as an ADA) Kat introduces him to her friend, a transgender prostitute who upon meeting him says "ADA? Your shoes say cop."
  • Inverted in the Murdoch Mysteries episode "Staircase to Heaven". A police officer arrives at the station house to collect a witness being held in protective custody until the trial of a serial killer. Constable Crabtree takes one look at the officer's boots, notices they are hardly police-issue, and hints to Inspector Brackenreid to arm himself - against the serial killer in question, masquerading as a cop.
  • Psych: Detective Lassiter is continually mocked for this.
    Lassiter: No, these are my civvies.
    Gus: They look exactly like your work clothes!
    Lassiter: Hardly. I'm wearing my suede bucks. They’re a casual gentleman's shoe.
    Shawn: A casual gentleman's shoe? What are you, the Great Gatsby?
  • The Thin Blue Line: Played for laughs. In one episode Inspector Grim is attempting to capture some suspected delinquents, so he has two of his detectives pose as youths to infiltrate the party. The person at the door immediately pegs them for police officers with a single glance.
  • The Wire:
    • Played straight many, many times. Drug dealers and street kids tend to develop a very good sense of who is a cop. Even after retiring from the police and starting to work with various educators and professors, Howard "Bunny" Colvin still finds street kids identifying him as police and treating him accordingly. Specific examples include one time when he wanders down a hallway in a local middle school and suddenly realizes that all the kids there are avoiding him and whispering to each other about him being a cop. In another case, he accompanies Professor Paretti to interview a local youth and is immediately identified as a cop.
      Colvin: [starting the interview] So, Shawn—
      Shawn: You police. [glances at Professor Paretti] He ain't.
    • In the first season Sydnor (who is considered one of the best undercover cops in the Baltimore Police Department), is getting ready to go undercover as a homeless junkie in order to be recorded buying from certain dealers. Before going out on the street to actually do it, the other detectives in the special detail bring Sydnor in before their informant Bubbles, who is an actual homeless junkie. While Sydnor's disguise and appearance is good enough on a surface level, it only takes a quick look for Bubbles to start poking holes in the facade. The biggest mistake by far is that Sydnor is wearing his wedding ring, which any junkie would have long since pawned off for drug money, but there are several smaller signs and details that might alert an observant dealer that Sydnor is a cop, and every junkie around would definitely know that he isn't who he says he is. Justified by the fact that it's Sydnor's first time working with a narcotics investigation, and thanks to the advice provided by Bubbles, he manages to be successful while undercover.
    • In one case, however, the show notably averts this and plays the aversion for laughs. Before retiring, Colvin spends a day going around his district in a fairly obvious but unmarked police car and stops by a corner at a red light. A very young dealer at that corner comes up to see if he's buying. Colvin is incredulous (he is, after all, sitting in a police car, in uniform, listening to the reports coming from his police radio), and not until he puts on his police hat does that kid get the message that he approached the wrong car. The other corner kids and dealers laugh hysterically at the kid for not being able to recognize a cop.
    • Plainclothes police are often preceded by a chorus of "five oh!" and "narcos!" in the streets, and when they go to the docks, dock police Beadie helpfully tells them the whistles they hear are the stevadores similarly signalling each other that there are police around.

  • In the Gorillaz song "She's my collar", this is implied to be the case with one of the two characters in the duet.
    "I was yellow, he was blue/It was nothing he could hide,"


    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Archer:
    • The highly dysfunctional team of spies always has terrible luck with going undercover, and their cover is usually quickly blown or seen through. Sometimes this is because their perpetual infighting or overblown egos lead them to blow it for themselves, other times, it's because whoever hired them in the first place is the real culprit, and their attempts at disguising themselves or going undercover never had a chance.
    • A slight variant shows up in the first season where Archer is having Adventures in Comaland. Archer (who in this case is playing out the season as a late 1940s Private Detective), can tell a car is an unmarked police car as soon as he sees it. Wondering what it's doing there draws him into one of the season's subplots, a Human Trafficking ring to which several Corrupt Cops are connected to.

    Real Life 
  • This is sometimes pretty easy in real life, and there's even a WikiHow page about it. One common tip is to look at their shoes. Undercover cops often wear military-style boots with street clothes.
  • Hacking and Cyber-Security convention DEF CON has Spot the Fed, a yearly game about identifying undercover police attending the convention, looking for crime.