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Must State If You're a Cop

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Cop: Jacksonville Police! Come out with your hands up!
Donkey Doug: Are you a cop? 'Cause if you are, you have to tell us!
Cop: ...Yes, this is the police.

A common misconception about law enforcement. A drug dealer or prostitute is chatting with a potential customer. But before they can actually go through with the deal, the pusher/hooker asks a simple question.

"Are you a cop?"

According to pop culture, an undercover cop has to answer truthfully, otherwise they're guilty of entrapment. The cop may employ careful use of Exact Words, saying something to the effect of "Do I look like a cop to you?", in an effort to dodge the question without outright lying, or in rare cases, may come right out and admit the truth.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not Truth in Television. Undercover stings would be pretty useless if a cop was required to blow their cover whenever asked a single question. An officer has the complete legal right to lie about their identity if the job requires it. In such an instance, a real-life undercover cop would say, "No, I'm not a cop," while being careful not to influence the situation so as to be accused of entrapmentnote .

All that said, one of the reasons that this trope still exists in pop culture and the public consciousness is because cops are in no hurry to correct it. Letting this misinformation float around helps the police with their job, after all. If people think that an undercover cop has to say they're a cop when asked, answering with a straightforward "no" can ease the tension in an undercover sting.

Subtrope of Artistic License Law Enforcement and Lying to the Perp. Sistertrope to Can Always Spot a Cop.

See also: If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten!, where someone has a cop perform a criminal activity to prove they aren't a cop. Cannot Tell a Lie, where a person is unable to lie about something in general.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: The JOJOLands, Jodio gets suspicious of a woman who wants to buy drugs from him. She gets his trust by playing this method, stating that if she were a cop, she would have to tell him if he asks. When he does, she says no, and he hands her the drugs. Immediately, the woman was actually an undercover cop looking to catch Jodio in the act.

    Comic Books 
  • In Alias, drug dealer Denny Hayes asks Jessica Jones, who's trying to infiltrate his inner circle, if she's a cop, and says that if she is, she's legally required to tell him. She isn't, but this doesn't stop him from ordering his goons to beat her up.

  • 8mm:
    • Tom and Max go into an underground porn market and a guard at the door asks everyone who goes in if they're police officers or affiliated with the police. From his wording and intonation, it's clear he's been instructed to ask the same question to everyone, presumably under the belief that cops are required to answer.
    • In an earlier scene, Max insists that Tom (actually a private detective) tell him if he's a police officer, saying that legally he's obliged to do so.
  • Deep Cover includes a scene where the undercover cop protagonist is asked point blank if he's a cop. To cover himself and his investigation he admits that he is, but answers the question in an incredibly sarcastic way to make it seem like he's bullshitting.
  • In The Departed, when Billy Costigan is talking with his criminal cousin Sean on the balcony, Billy is asked to tell if he is a cop, which he denies. It's a matter of public record that Billy went through the police academy, but his record has also been altered by his handlers to make it look like he washed out and ended up serving time for (a fictitious) assault, giving him credibility to infiltrate an organized crime outfit.

  • Chasing the Dime: Lucy (while still "Robin") asks Pierce if he's a cop before inviting him up to her apartment.
  • Appears in the Myth Adventures novel M.Y.T.H. Inc in Action, when "Are you a cop?" is Guido's automatic reaction to being asked if he's with the Mob, and his narration "explains" that if the answer is yes, they have to say so.
  • The Stormlight Archive: The Knights Radiant gain power by making and keeping certain vows, and the source of their power is literally the god of Honor; if a knight breaks one of these vows, they lose their power. The Sons of Honor try to exploit this by making potential recruits vow that they are not Knights Radiant, not knowing that only the ones they give to their Spren count.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Breaking Bad: The season 2 episode "Better Call Saul" opens with Badger selling drugs on a park bench. A lanky looking dude named Getz walks up to him and asks if he's selling. Badger immediately susses out that Getz is an undercover cop, pointing out the brown "Duke City Flowers" van parked "inconspicuously" nearby. Getz pretends to be offended by the accusation and considers not going through with the deal, especially after Badger makes him lift his shirt to prove that he's not wearing a wire. After a bit of pondering, Getz gets an idea as to how to get Badger to trust him: he claims that the Constitution says that if you ask a cop to identify himself as a cop, he is obligated to tell you. So Badger asks him if he's a cop. Getz holds up his hand, like he's swearing under oath, and says he's not a cop. Satisfied, Badger sells him the meth. Getz pays him, then promptly whips out a gun and police badge, and arrests Badger on the spot (and the vans that Badger identified as surveillance also pull up). Later, while Badger is being interrogated, he is still peeved at Getz because he still believes that urban legend and thinks Getz is screwing around with the Constitution.
  • The Mentalist: The episode "Black Helicopters" has Jane and the team of FBI agents he and Lisbon now work with tangle with an anti-government commune in Texas. Agent Fischer investigates a farmer's market incognito after meeting with a wall of silence as an FBI agent. After one of the members she talked to previously outs her, she is irately informed that she is required to identify herself as a law enforcement officer before conducting questioning.
  • In one of the last seasons of Dexter, Hector Estrada, the last guy left from the group who killed Dexter's mother, gets paroled from prison and Dexter pretends to be a criminal and approaches Estrada so he can get close enough to kill Estrada. Estrada agrees to talk business at a later date, but first requires Dexter to loudly and clearly state that Dexter isn't a cop. Dexter, who really isn't a cop but a forensic examiner, does so without hesitation. Even if he were, it wouldn't count for much, since Dexter's intent isn't to arrest him.
  • In The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed, Sharapov, an undercover MUR agent, faces this issue when he tries to infiltrate a gang. The gang members suspect him of being a paid informant or a plant more than an undercover police officer though. He answers with a categorical denial: "Do I have to provide a document from the Militsia that states I'm not in it"?
  • In That '70s Show, Hyde is selling hash brownies, and asks his customers if they are cops or in any way associated with the police before selling them anything.
  • Double Subverted in an episode of The Sentinel. Ellison is working undercover in a prison suspected of corruption, when his cellmate asks him if he's a cop. Ellison looks like he's about to deny it, but the man cuts him off, saying that if he's not a cop, then they have nothing more to discuss (i.e. he hopes Ellison is a cop, so he can stop what's going on in the jail).
  • One of the very first episodes of Law & Order had a prostitute ask Greevey if he's a cop and he says no, then finds cause to arrest her. In the station, she says "You said you weren't a cop". He just says "I Lied" and adds that this requirement is a myth after she protests.
  • Referenced in an episode of Friday Night Lights. Luke goes to East Dillon to get some off-prescription Oxycodone. The neighbourhood dealers take one look at him and go silent, assuming that the clean cut white guy dressed like a cowboy is a narc. He tells them he's not a cop, trying to invoke this, but as career criminals they know that cops are allowed to lie and still say nothing.
  • Blackadder Goes Forth has a variant when Edmund is tasked to hunt a suspected mole in headquarters. Baldrick suggests asking suspects, "Are you a German spy?" Edmund naturally points out the prospect of the suspect lying.
  • Played with in House: a Patient Of The Week is buying drugs while sleepwalking and House sends Thirteen and Taub to get some of the product to see if it can be the cause of the patient's condition. When they find the dealer she starts to make a run for it (since she had already seen them tail the patient earlier, which is why they found out about the drugs in the first place) but Taub attempts to defuse the situation:
    Taub: Relax, I'm not a cop! Cops aren't allowed to say that, right?
    Dealer: [stopping] ...they are, but if you were a cop you'd know that.
  • The Big Bang Theory: On a trip to Las Vegas, Leonard and Raj hire a hooker for Howard to help him get over a breakup. When they ask her if she is in fact a prostitute, she immediately asks if they are cops. They say no, and she casually confirms that she is a prostitute.
  • Subverted on Scandal as a flashback shows David Rosen in his prosecutor days, meeting a prostitute complaining about an arrest. She cites the trope with David dryly noting "that's not really a thing."
  • Played for laughs in The Good Place a few times, even providing us with the page quote.
  • On more than one occasion on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a suspect or civilian has tried to invoke this, only to be told that it isn't true.
  • In The Terminal List, Reece buys "something for his headaches" from an exotic dancer. She invokes this trope, telling Reece he has to tell her if he's a cop; he replies, "I'm not sure that's actually true."

    Video Games 
  • When talking to prospective costumers in Monster Breeder, the player can ask them if they are a cop, since their monster breeding business is illegal (at least until they buy an official monster breeder license from the game's shop), and there is a chance the customer is an investigator trying to pull off a sting. It actually works in scaring off any snooping cops, though it runs the risk of also occasionally scaring off genuine customers.
  • The profile for Leo in Oddity asks the player if they're a cop when they ask him what his hometown is. He gives a similar answer for his age.
  • In Unavowed, the Chinatown greengrocer, Doug Wang, who sells an illegal sleeping aid under the table, gets it wrong in the usual way when the Player Character starts pressing him about said illegal sleeping aid. If Vicki, an actual cop, is present, she rolls her eyes and sighs in exasperation when Doug asks if it's a real rule, and says that it doesn't matter because she is currently on involuntary leave from the force.

    Web Animation 

    Web Comics 
  • Parodied in the Title Text to Questionable Content #3243.
    If you ask someone if they're a murderer, they have to tell you
  • Discussed in Leftover Soup, and established as not true. Cheryl does point out that undercover cops are not allowed to attempt to coerce anyone into illegal acts, which includes active soliciting. Later, Jamie is forced to prove to some criminals that he's not a cop, and resorts to (very awkwardly) offer sexual services for money.

    Web Original 
  • SuperMarioLogan: In Black Yoshi's Kool-Aid problem, the Loan Dolphin asks Black Yoshi (who's trying to buy Kool-Aid from him illegally now that it has been declared a drug) if he's a cop, stating (incorrectly) that the law requires cops to answer truthfully.

    Western Animation 
  • In the The Boondocks episode "Guess Hoe's Coming to Dinner", Huey tries to get his grandfather to see that his new girlfriend Cristal is actually a prostitute. One question Huey asks is if Cristal is constantly asking Robert if he's a cop. She then walks by the two and tell Robert that he still hasn't answered that exact question, even mentioning the supposed "entrapment" part.
  • Bill's twitchy, paranoid paper-route boss in F is for Family grabs Bill's nerdy friend Philip and, hatchet in hand, angrily demands to know if the kid's a cop and that he has to say so if he is. Philip's panicked response is priceless:
    Philip: *terrified* "No I don't, THAT'S A POPULAR MISCONCEPTION!!"
  • Futurama: When Fry's nose is stolen as an aphrodisiac, he, Leela and Bender go to a "human horn" dealer in search of it. Before letting them in, he asks if they're cops.
    Leela: No, in fact, he's a crook. (points to Bender)
    Bender: Stolen Pez anyone?