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Kid Cop Returns (Again and Again)

As a teenager, Vincent Richardson became a Chicago legend after successfully impersonating a police officer. He got caught — so why did he do it over and over? Well, when you’re really good at something...

Illustrations by Max-o-matic for The Verge

When Vincent Richardson was 14 years old, he wore a police uniform into Chicago’s Third District Grand Crossing police station and reported for duty. It was January 24th, 2009, and he told officers he’d been assigned by another district to work a shift there. An intake officer issued Vincent a police radio and ticket book; then, the officer assigned Vincent a partner and a police cruiser. 

Over the next five hours, they drove around the South Side of Chicago monitoring hot spots and responding to calls from dispatch. Vincent helped with traffic stops. He communicated with dispatchers using specific criminal codes about activities on the beat. He even assisted in an arrest helping to place handcuffs on someone suspected of violating a protective order.

He did this as an eighth grader. His uniform was a costume. And no one realized he was just a kid pretending to be a cop.

Vincent and his partner returned to Grand Crossing station later that evening. The captain on duty noticed the small, clean-shaven officer and asked Vincent to produce a badge. He couldn’t, of course. The captain searched him and discovered Vincent’s gun holster was empty; he’d crammed a newspaper into his body armor bag to make it look full. The captain placed Vincent under arrest and charged him as a juvenile with the misdemeanor offense of impersonating a police officer.

Or at least that was the official narrative at the time: while Vincent had pulled one over on the Windy City and its police department, it was just one embarrassing police shift, five hours long. And then it was over. 

So began the legend of the Kid Cop. Every newspaper and TV station in the city covered the story. It became the focus of city council hearings. “If [police] can’t keep a watchful eye on their own station, how in the world are they going to protect the community?” one local resident told the Chicago Defender. Jody Weis, then Chicago’s police commissioner, went on a meeting and media tour to try and assure the public that this was a very unusual situation that wouldn’t happen again.

From all indications, Weis’ tour worked. The story turned into a joke. National late-night comedians picked it up. The Chicago news cycle rolled on. Prosecutors gave Vincent probation, a lenient sentence. The Chicago Police Department’s Internal Affairs bureau produced a report on the incident, and 14 officers received disciplinary action. Police brass suspended his temporary partner and the captain for a few days without pay. No one lost their job.

Vincent’s mom, Veronica, may have meted out his harshest penalty: she took away his PlayStation and grounded him. He wasn’t even allowed to go outside and play basketball for a while.

“When you train to be a cop, they train you to stand big,” he said. “You stand bigger than you stand tall.”

But things never quite got back to normal. The experience changed him. Vincent had spent almost two years in the Chicago Police Department’s Youth Explorer program before he became Kid Cop. And every day, he’d do as he was instructed, taking the job seriously. The training he got was almost identical to what police would receive, with the exception of firearms. 

“There are certain types of people who do certain things, jump out of planes, join the Army. Firefighters jump into burning buildings. These are adrenaline-seeking junkies,” he said. “These are cops. That’s why they love to do the job they do. They weren’t trained for nothing else in the world.”

Vincent put every hour of his free time into being an Explorer. And he began to think of himself as part of the police brotherhood. He fucked up, he admits that. But wasn’t the point of the program to make Explorers feel like cops? So why not be a cop when presented with the opportunity?

After he got caught, there was no way he was going to be allowed back into the Explorer program. It was an existential crisis for young Vincent.

“I was like, ‘What am I gonna do?’” he said. “This is all I basically did my whole time. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to be a teenager.” 

But if he’d learned anything about being a cop, the job was about perception. The power of police is self-fulfilling: they have authority because people believe they have authority. 

“When you train to be a cop, they train you to stand big,” he said. “You stand bigger than you stand tall.” 

He’d spend the next decade and a half trying to stand big, just like how he learned in the Explorers and on patrol. 

Problem was, whenever he tried to stand big, he soon found himself behind bars.

I first met Vincent about a dozen years after the media’s initial infatuation with the Kid Cop story ended. But in that time, Vincent had repeatedly tried passing himself off as a police officer. He’d been arrested just about yearly since 2009 for a number of offenses, all non-violent, some bizarrely motivated. In February 2021, he’d been arrested at his apartment complex and was, in the spring of 2022, serving prison time in Illinois’ medium-security Big Muddy River Correctional Center after pleading guilty to — you guessed it — impersonating a police officer. Vincent embodies a strange contradiction: the criminal who wants so badly to be a cop that he’s willing to go to prison for it.

At 28, he wore a prison-issue white polo shirt, dark blue knockoff Dickies, and white canvas slip-on shoes. But I really can’t stress it enough: what you notice immediately about Vincent is how much bigger he seems than he actually is. He claims he’s 5’5”, but he’s not even that tall. Still, broad chest and shoulders, he looks tough — the man understands posture and how to look strong and confident and like he belongs wherever he stands.

We shook hands and sat. With the shackles off, he asked me to buy him Doritos and a meat sandwich and a Gatorade from the commissary vending machines. After I did, he loosened up.

“I’ve wanted to be a cop since before I can remember,” he said.

His mother, Veronica, told me he’d started watching Cops at the age of five, and since then, “that’s all he wanted to do.” Vincent’s stepfather had been a police officer, too. Like any good parent, Veronica wanted to support her son. When Vincent was 13, she signed him up for the Chicago Police Department’s Youth Explorer program, designed to get kids from ages 10 to 15 to understand more about policing and what cops do every day. 

It serves as public outreach to neighborhoods with higher crime rates and lower household incomes and is still active today. Explorers would get police-issue uniforms, including trousers and a shirt, a jersey, and a cap. They would train regularly with officers in their neighborhood, and the program even offered a stipend to kids over 14. (Today, that stipend is $75 per week.) Veronica couldn’t imagine something more perfect for Vincent.

“I felt like I was one of them. I was law enforcement.”

He would be an Explorer a few nights per week after school and work the events on weekends. “School was pretty easy for me,” Vincent said. He was in eighth grade. “I was bored and did my homework fast when I got home. I had time.” Vincent was in the program for nearly two years, which is how, according to the official report, he was able to impersonate a police officer for a five-hour shift.

But Vincent now claims the truth is wildly different.

“I wasn’t doing this for five hours,” he told me. “This went on for weeks.”

On a date that he can’t recall exactly, Vincent said he walked into the Englewood station just like he normally would as an Explorer after school. He arrived at shift change. As usual, officers and Explorers lined up for their assignments, and because it was January in Chicago, Vincent wore the Explorer uniform under a dark blue jacket and skull cap. His outfit looked like all the other cops’. The officer in charge of shift assignments was apparently new on the job and didn’t recognize Vincent as an Explorer, so instead of giving him a training assignment, he made the mistake of handing Vincent a radio and ticket book.

“I wasn’t trying to fool anyone,” Vincent said. He says he wouldn’t have impersonated a cop in eighth grade if the opportunity didn’t present itself. “I just went along with it when they messed up.”

When Vincent met up with his new partner, they threw him cruiser keys and told him to pull the car around. So he did.

Vincent says he helped with traffic stops and communicated with dispatchers and assisted in an arrest that day. But at the end of the shift, no one caught on that he wasn’t a cop. He turned in his radio and ticket book and went home. The next day after school, he went back to the station again. Same time. Same place. During shift change.

A few days every week, he’d show up and get his radio and ticket book and go on patrol. He and his partner would drive around Chicago’s South Side; they’d stop people and respond to calls. The Explorer program may have succeeded in its goal of educating Vincent about what cops do all day. You could argue it was too effective.

“I had been an Explorer for close to a year, so I felt like I was already a cop,” he said. “I felt like I was one of them. I was law enforcement.”

Vincent’s stories about his fake cop days are varied. In one, two drivers collided on a city street at an intersection and were in front of their cars, yelling obscenities and ready to fight. Vincent and his partner calmed them down and got them to start talking reasonably. “By the end, they’re hugging and shit,” Vincent said. “We didn’t even write a ticket.”

In another, Vincent said he and his partner got a call about an open-air drug deal. The suspect they located resisted arrest and attempted to flee. Vincent and his partner wrestled the suspect to the ground, got them into handcuffs, and brought them back to the station in the back seat of the cruiser. When they arrived, Vincent said he told his shift captain about the difficulty of the arrest. The captain, Vincent claimed, decided that the perp needed to be taught a lesson. He needed “a rough ride.”

He reveled in his new, high profile. “It was like I was a celebrity,” he said.

He said the captain then walked the handcuffed suspect by the elbow back to the cruiser, opened the trunk, and shoved the suspect inside. Then they got into the cruiser with Vincent behind the wheel. The captain directed him to a street with speed bumps.

“Hit the gas,” the captain said.

So that’s what Vincent did.

The car bounced violently along the road with the suspect bumping around in the trunk, screaming to be let out.

“When you hear about police having power, yeah, you get it,” Vincent said. “They can write tickets and have guns and can arrest people. But you don’t really understand that power until you’re there on the streets. You can get two people to listen to you and stop fighting just because you’re a cop.”

He goes on: “And then if someone pisses you off, you throw ‘em in the trunk. No one’s gonna believe ‘em anyway.”

Vincent said he didn’t necessarily want to do that to anyone himself. In fact, he wanted the opposite: To help people. To stop fights. To help victims of domestic violence. Prevent shootings.

He told a third story. A simple one. 

Vincent and his partner pulled someone over. He didn’t remember details. They found a bag of weed in the car. This suspect wasn’t combative and didn’t try to run away. Instead, they shrugged and admitted the weed was theirs. So Vincent dumped it out and told them to keep driving. 

“Police can look the other way,” he said. “That’s power, too.”

The thing about talking to someone who is notorious for misrepresenting themselves is that it can be extremely hard to believe anything they say. 

There are no records indicating that Vincent impersonated an officer for three weeks instead of five hours. Or that he made any of the stops he described. Or that the accusation he made about his captain initiating a “rough ride” is real. Vincent had described it to me in detail from the visitation room of Big Muddy prison. Months later, speaking on the phone with a fact checker, he denied it happened. But while talking with her, he texted me: “I’m on the phone now,” he said, “uncomfortable with the trunk incident not good.” Was he afraid of the ramifications of something that happened 14 years ago? Or did he make it all up?

Even the station where he pretended to be a cop, about 13 miles northwest of the Englewood neighborhood where Vincent lived and went to school, is different in his description than the one reported in news articles and police records.

But minimizing Vincent’s fake cop stint to an afternoon wasn’t just good for Vincent. It preserved the reputation of the Chicago Police Department. Rather than having the story of a Kevin Hart-sized teenager revealing systemwide issues with the department — and perhaps the nature of policing as a whole — the incident could be written off as a misunderstanding that occurred on one weird afternoon.

After Vincent was discovered, he believed that the captain thought that many aspects of the story would look horrible for himself and the department if anyone heard. He probably didn’t need some kid going out into the world to share everything he saw as a fake cop.

“So he brings me into his office and sits me down, and I start trying to explain, and he says, ‘Shut the fuck up,’” Vincent recalled. “Then he tells me what’s gonna happen next.”

Vincent would be charged with impersonating an officer. He would stay quiet about anything he saw on shift and how long he saw it. In exchange, they would work to get the charges dropped. That was the deal.

This is why, according to Vincent, the record shows that he was only on shift for five hours and that he wasn’t in a district filled with officers he saw regularly as an Explorer. To Vincent, it was self-preservation by his captain on behalf of the Chicago Police Department.

“They were gonna cover they asses,” he said. “And I wasn’t gonna say anything.”

In February 2009, about a week after Vincent’s story hit the evening news around the country, a newspaper columnist for the Austin Weekly News in Chicago, Arlene Jones, questioned why the name and image of a 14-year-old made its way into the media in the first place. Vincent wasn’t charged as an adult. He didn’t harm anyone. But his name had gotten out. Newspapers published photos of him. And by publishing his name and photo and all but disclosing his home address in news stories parroted all over the world, the responsibility for Vincent’s actions fell to Vincent alone.

“He used to wear CTA uniforms and get on the CTA bus and … these people let him drive.”

In the age of Google, his name would forever be associated with “Kid Cop.” If anyone — like, say, a potential employer — looked him up, they would see the back story of a criminal.

Surprisingly, Vincent told me that he saw it differently. He reveled in his new, high profile. “It was like I was a celebrity,” he said.

Both the official power he tasted as a temporary cop and the unusual notoriety he received afterward left him wanting more. Before his arrest, he felt bored. Now he was really bored. Go to school. Come home. Do homework. Eat dinner. Find something to do until bed. Sleep and repeat.

Why do that when he had a sampling of something that brought him true excitement? True infamy. All the attention he felt he deserved.

After the Kid Cop incident, Vincent laid low and got his GED. But he soon found himself on the wrong end of police handcuffs time and again. At 17 years old, in May 2011, cops picked him up on the street in Englewood with a loaded pistol. Looking at his juvenile record, prosecutors and a judge decided to make him an adult one year early in the eyes of the law. They charged him with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon and possession of ammunition without a firearm owner’s identification. He couldn’t post a $50,000 bond, so he stayed in Cook County Jail until sentencing. A judge gave him time served.

When he got out, Vincent worked at McDonald’s as a janitor. His family knew he always wanted to be in law enforcement, so they talked with people they knew and got him a job doing the next best thing: working as a security guard. Still, Vincent remained antsy. He wanted the same thrill he got back when he was 14. But he wasn’t an Explorer anymore. He needed a new uniform.

On a Tuesday afternoon, July 24th, 2013, Vincent walked into an Englewood uniform shop and told the clerk that he was a Chicago police officer. Wearing dark blue pants like an officer’s, he put his wallet on the checkout counter and gave the clerk his driver’s license. He was 19 at the time and said he wanted to try on cargo shorts and a duty belt.

The clerk later told police that Vincent made him suspicious after repeatedly saying he was an officer in the Englewood district. So the clerk Googled Vincent and discovered the obvious: this was Kid Cop. While the clerk searched the web, Vincent could sense from the shop floor that something was up. He tried to make a run for it but forgot his wallet, credit cards, and identification on the counter. The clerk phoned it in, and Vincent was arrested within the hour.

The police report from the incident reflects what Vincent has told me repeatedly and other reporters. “I know what it’s like to be one of you,” he said to the officers, according to the report. “I respect you because I did it for a day, chasing and helping people. My intentions are never to hurt people, just to help.”

It was an overture. A cry for leniency. Something to endear himself to the officers he intended to portray. He even stuck with the official narrative of only being a cop for a day.

The arresting officers were having none of it. They charged him with impersonating a police officer again. A felony this time, he faced three years behind bars. The officers took him to Cook County Jail. He couldn’t post bond, so he stayed there until November that year when a judge sentenced him to 18 months in prison.

You would think that the experience of being thrown into prison for trying to buy the wrong kind of cargo shorts in the wrong kind of store might’ve given Vincent pause the next time he had the urge to even think about vigilante policing. It didn’t.

Vincent got out of lockup early in December 2014. Over the next five months, he began ordering police gear — online this time. He says he purchased a bulletproof vest, a stun gun, and other tactical gear for a gig with Monterrey Security in Chicago. He says his friend Dontrell Reese worked with him at the time. (A spokesman for Monterrey Security, Steve Patterson, said Vincent worked a “probationary” period in 2014 for the security company, which provides guards and ushers for events at Soldier Field. Vincent worked as an usher, not a security guard, Patterson said. Vincent’s manager fired him for “post abandonment” after three months on the job. “He was hired as an usher to have a specific task, [but] his supervisor noticed right away he was wandering off, and who knows what his intentions were or plans were?” Patterson said.)

After receiving a sentence of house arrest for destroying the Lexus, Vincent popped his ankle monitor off so he could get back into the world

“We weren’t doing anything violent,” Vincent told me. “We would go and direct traffic. It needed to be done. Needed to look the part.”

After receiving a call that gunshots had been fired in Englewood, officers arrived. They’d later write in a police report that they saw Vincent “walking along the public way” wearing a bulletproof vest. They searched him and found a “partial duty belt, handcuffs, flashlight, radio, empty gun holster and black badge case” with no badge inside, in addition to a black ballistic bulletproof vest. Dontrell also wore a protective vest and carried a stun gun. Both were arrested. 

Vincent tried to explain that he had all that equipment for his work as a security guard. Neither cops nor the judge bought it. Vincent would eventually plead guilty to impersonating an officer for the third time and was sentenced to another 280 days in prison.

These arrests ensured that Kid Cop wouldn’t fade into history. His story had now become part of Chicago lore.

Except now, people were rooting for Vincent. He’d become a minor icon in the city, a provocateur who, intentionally or not, might force real change in the city’s police department. “We’re not ready to crown him a folk hero quite yet,” wrote Marcus Gilmer in the Chicagoist at the time, “but it’s possible this could be the straw that breaks the police superintendent’s back.”

Will Lee, a columnist and reporter for the Chicago Tribune, had interviewed Vincent on a few occasions. He sympathized with Vincent’s explanations about wanting to help people, his dreams of wanting to be a part of the police brotherhood. And Vincent could succeed, Lee wrote, if he’d just stop pretending to be a cop, if he’d stop following that one dream.

Right around the time Vincent got out of prison on police impersonation charges in April 2016, Lee wrote that Vincent had potential: “Now he has another opportunity to start over if he can avoid trouble until his parole ends next March. This time, I hope it’s for real.”

I spoke with Dontrell. He and Vincent had been best friends for years, having met just after the original Kid Cop incident. Dontrell freely admitted to running with gangs, stealing cars, dealing in illegal firearms. He was a felon at an early age, too. “We was just being bad, young kids being bad,” he said.

But Vincent didn’t run with gangs, wasn’t stealing cars or actively getting involved in mayhem. Kids in the neighborhood kept him around, however, because he was cool and “knew how to look older,” Dontrell said.

I asked what he meant by that. 

“He used to wear CTA uniforms and get on the CTA bus and … these people let him drive,” Dontrell said.

I thought I misheard. Vincent would go to a local bus station in a fake bus driver uniform and take a bus out to drive?

“Yeah!” he said. “They would let him drive the CTA bus!”

Sometimes, Vincent would take the bus on a joyride. He’d pull up to Dontrell’s house and blare the horn. Then they’d cruise around, just for the hell of it.

Dontrell said it was crazy times in the neighborhood, and Vincent was often the cause. 

That wasn’t all. Dontrell said the public record doesn’t show half of it. “He’s pulling up in police cars, so now we ridin’ in police cars together while I’m in the streets. And, you know, in the mix of all the other chaos that’s going on, it was like, damn, this is my homie.”

Later, Dontrell doesn’t remember when exactly, he caught a charge and ended up in Cook County Jail. One day, he got a call from an officer that he had a visitor. Someone from the Army was there to see him. Dontrell went down to the visitation room and saw — who else? — Vincent. 

“This motherfucker dressed up as an army [officer] and then got into the jail to visit me,” Dontrell said. “How the fuck did he do that? I don’t know!”

But that was just who Vincent was. “It was like every situation,” he said. “He was able to transform character. What can you do to fit in with the character? He could do it. He could be anyone he wanted to be.”

For all the times when Vincent succeeded in transforming character and avoiding punishment, there were the ones when he failed. Like, for instance, every time he attempted to be a cop.

That made five times now he’d been caught for the same crime

On August 16th, 2016, a couple of Chicago police officers were driving down the street on patrol in the city’s River North district. They noticed a short Black man with broad shoulders purposefully walking on the sidewalk toward the SAE Institute media college. The man wore an Action K9 uniform — black polo shirt, black cargo pants, duty belt with handcuffs, flashlight, radio — and, according to a police report, he told people he was an on-duty Chicago police officer.

The actual police found Vincent and arrested him. A judge sentenced him back behind bars for 18 months.

Starting over would have been difficult for Vincent in 2016, no matter what dreams he pursued. Not a year had passed since he was 14 when he didn’t catch some kind of charge or contend with parole or sit in lockup. Not great for an existence. Certainly not good for a résumé.

In the months after his release from the 2016 impersonation charge, Vincent talked his way into a security guard job with Action K9 Security, a company that works with Chicago police to monitor train lines. Action K9 soon fired him when he couldn’t get the required state clearances for the job. 

But that didn’t matter to Vincent. He wanted to be a guard, even if he’d been fired. So he kept pretending.

At another point, Vincent wore a suit into a Lexus car dealership and asked a salesman if he could test drive a new ES 350. He took the car out, wrecked it, then fled the scene. After receiving a sentence of house arrest for destroying the Lexus, Vincent popped his ankle monitor off so he could get back into the world.

Despite his history with automobiles, he later charmed his way into a job as a clerk at an Alamo Rent a Car. He walked in, filled out an application, and told the hiring manager that he had no prior arrests and had a bachelor’s degree. Neither was true, obviously, but Vincent was able to work the job.

Until he got restless. One day, Vincent rented a car from the Alamo. Then he stopped showing up for work — without notice and without returning the vehicle. A week later, his bosses reported the vehicle stolen. Like most rental cars, it had a GPS. Vincent was at home when the police showed up. He was sitting on the couch; the car was sitting outside. Vincent ended up with a two-year prison sentence.

Somehow, things were looking up. In the summer of 2020, even amidst the pandemic, Vincent found himself with one of the few secure jobs at the time: managing logistics for an Amazon warehouse. He organized trucks and mailing routes, ensuring that the second-largest company in the world could deliver Crocs and kitchenware and whatever else people were buying with their stimulus checks in 2020 throughout the Chicagoland area.

By landing this job, Vincent had accomplished something extraordinarily difficult. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, only about 40 percent of formerly incarcerated people are employed within four years of being released. And that survey doesn’t account for race. On average, Black people in America are nearly twice as likely as whites to be unemployed. So, for people like Vincent, the Census Bureau numbers are probably even worse than they seem.

Sure, it’s possible that he lied about his rap sheet to get the job. (Vincent, after implying that he did in conversation, now denies it.) Regardless, he had a salary and benefits. A 401(k) plan. He even got himself a hot rod, a 2021 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. Then he found himself a girlfriend and moved into an apartment with her in a Chicago suburb close to Naperville.

“I was going to work, the same routine every day, and it was boring,” he went on. “Was it killing me inside? Yeah.”

And yet, something nagged at Vincent. As he progressed in the job and received more responsibilities, he had more free time because he was managing people rather than delivering packages on his own. “And when I started getting like a lot of time on my hands,” he said, that’s when “shit happens.”

So Vincent made moves. Getting a private security contractor license in Illinois requires a registration process, background check, and paying a $2,050 fee to a licensing agency. All of Vincent’s felonies in the last decade would have disqualified him from getting such a permit. So he ignored that requirement entirely. After all, he’d worked on and off as a security guard for most of his adult life. He could, instead, look the part.

Instead, Vincent started looking on Facebook for businesses that needed private security. He found a few. And the process for starting an LLC is fairly simple: mail a few forms and a few dollars and wait. So he founded a company called Defense Public Safety Solutions, complete with a logo, letterhead, business cards, and an ID badge he made himself.

He started bidding for security contracts. He purchased dark blue security uniforms with gold badges and hired his friends to be guards. And he did all this while working a full-time job with Gardner Synergy Logistics, the Amazon affiliate that employed him. 

It was a good hustle. It kept him busy. And it got him a little closer to the kind of life he’d always wanted.

Then Vincent discovered an open contract for an apartment complex run by the Chicago Housing Authority. It was one that specifically sought out Chicago police in need of moonlight work.

Vincent, not being an actual cop, didn’t have the official documentation. Instead, he tried the next best thing: he created social media accounts that might present him as a Chicago police officer. That was the idea, anyway. To bolster his online presence, he signed up for a SWAT training academy and likely planned to film it to make the videos look legitimate. 

He started accounts under the handle @vince_CPD and began posting from his supposed job on the force. Videos and photos from a shooting range. Chicago police SUVs. Himself in a navy blue T-shirt with the Chicago Police Department insignia. On TikTok, he danced to the SpotemGottem track “BeatBox” while dressed as a Chicago police officer. The video went lightly viral, with more than 100,000 views.

Chicago detectives started tailing him. It wasn’t long before this latest attempt to impersonate a police officer would get him in trouble, and he was briskly apprehended. That made five times now he’d been caught for the same crime.

Around mid-September 2022, Vincent was released from Cook County Jail. I picked him up before dawn, at 5AM. Wearing a white Haynes T-shirt, grey flowy sweat pants, white socks, and grey knockoff Adidas slides, Vincent dropped into the passenger’s seat of my rental car and said, “Get me the fuck outta here.”

Rather than an expression of joy or relief that he was finally out of state custody, Vincent understandably had the demeanor of a man who’d just wasted a lot of time doing something he’d rather not have done. Recently, he was in the prison’s rehab program, which earned him an early release.

It was strange because Vincent historically did not have issues with drugs or alcohol addiction. But you could argue that he had been addicted to something else: adrenaline.

“I had to, like, adapt to that program,” he said. “So they was always talking about drugs, but I don’t do drugs. So I had to relate as close as possible to my own situation.”

“You act presentable. Usually, that’s enough for them.”

The way Vincent described it, anyone who knew him as a police impersonator misunderstood the impulses he had. It wasn’t just that he wanted to be a cop. It was that being a cop afforded gave him that rush.

“I got an impulsive adrenaline-seeking behavior,” he said, “and being a police officer, that’s the type of job that — that’s that every day.” The job requires impulsive adrenaline-seeking behavior, he said. At the Amazon affiliate, “I was going to work, the same routine every day, and it was boring,” he went on. “Was it killing me inside? Yeah.”

As the drive progressed, Vincent was feeling reflective. There were big swaths of the journey, which lasted close to four hours, when neither of us would talk. And then he’d let something loose, like he’d been thinking about it for a long time:

“As a cop, you learn how to critique yourself, especially with dealing with people. ‘Cause the image is, it’s everything. People size you up no matter what. They say, ‘Oh, I could get one over on him,’ or ‘I could try him and beat him.’ They look for that stuff. Criminals or people that’s more advanced, they look like, ‘He’s easy,’ like a cop back there. So I learned that. It became who I am.”

On that car ride, when I asked Vincent how he’d gotten the Amazon-adjacent job, his answer wasn’t totally illuminating. In fact, it was entirely predictable, given his life story. If Vincent was cool and confident, he could stroll into any job interview and people would often take him at his word. And they usually didn’t bother to do any reference checks.

“You dress nice, suit and tie or whatever the case may be,” he said. “You act presentable. Usually, that’s enough for them.”

Which is to say that: maybe the best way to avoid the economic pitfalls of being a Black former prisoner in America is to just pretend that’s not who you are. Stand bigger than you stand tall.

When I spoke with Dontrell, I asked him: who is Vincent Richardson, really?

“This is a man who was tryin’ to get us behind that wall,” Dontrell said. “He was a chameleon. He could be anyone, and he was being a cop to expose how simple it was to cross over. He was showing us something about ourselves.”