Fact Check

Gang Members Are Removing Lug Nuts from Cars with Police Stickers?

Rumor: Gang members removing lug nuts from the tires of cars with police markings or support stickers.

Published Jan 6, 2014


Claim:   Gang members are targeting police cars and civilian vehicles with PBA stickers and loosening the lug nuts on the tires.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, January 2015]

This just sounds very unlikely:

Detroit — Police are warning officers and anyone else displaying bumper stickers supporting law enforcement about a reported threat that gang members may tamper with their vehicles.

Detroit Police Second Deputy Chief James Fleming, head of the Communications Bureau, on Dec. 30 sent a department wide teletype warning officers: "According to a credible source ... gang members — notably those in large metropolitan areas — plan to loosen the lug nuts on officers' personnel vehicles displaying Law Enforcement/Police Benevolent Association/Fraternal Order of Police plates or stickers.


Origins:   On 5 January 2015, Detroit News published an article about an internal communication issued by Detroit police on 30 December 2014. The communication in question described a danger posed by gang members who purportedly planned to loosen the lug nuts on car tires belonging either to police officers or civilians who displayed decals openly indicating support of organizations such as the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) or the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).

The belief that "gang members" planned to target car tire lug nuts did not originate with the article of 5 January 2015, nor was the 30 December 2014 internal memo its first public appearance. The idea individuals with a grudge against police would be attracted to vehicle lug nuts was floated on 24 December 2014 in broader news coverage of ongoing public debate in New York City regarding the relationship between the police and the public. In that iteration, the "lug nuts" threat was framed as an example of one of many things an individual intending to harm police might do that would warrant general heightened precaution among officers:

In addition to the threats, police have increased security at precincts throughout the city to prevent acts of vandalism, such as loosening lug nuts on the tires of squad cars, and other acts that may endanger the lives of cops, sources [said].

In the brief mention on 24 December 2014, no reports of such instances of lug nut tampering were cited, and the source from whom the idea originated was not described. At some point between the mention of hypothetical lug nut tampering (describing how a grudge bearer might mess with the cops) on 24 December

and the Detroit memo issued on 30 December 2014, the notion evolved from an illustrative scenario to a real gang member threat.

It's certainly possible organized criminals inform police officers of their planned crimes prior to engaging in sordid dealings, or undercover operatives are able to drop a dime on their unwitting gangland contacts. However, gangs and cops do not historically have a friendly relationship, and there's no reason for their members to be angrier with law enforcement during the then-current civil unrest than at any time in the past. The police-involved deaths of civilians that prompted demonstrations did not involve gangs, and there is no ostensible reason they would exacerbate the adversarial relationship between the groups and police officers.

Furthermore, there's no clear motive ascribed to the purported threat. Presumably gangs are always displeased with law enforcement; and committing an act of vengeance that is virtually undetectable doesn't send a message of any description, nor does it result in financial gain for gang members. Should any vehicles be tampered with in such a fashion, nothing would connect any resulting accident to any action by gangs.

The claim seems more implausible when extrapolated to those who are not police but merely display PBA or FOP stickers on their cars. Such stickers are common and widely believed to ward off the issuance of moving violation tickets by officers of the law (who may believe the occupants are police supporters and accordingly grant them a wider berth of discretion), but there's no obvious motive for gangs' wanting to target civilian drivers who have no law enforcement powers.

Finally, Detroit Police media contacts told the paper no such incidents (potential or actual) had occurred in Detroit or elsewhere before the communication was issued:

There have not been any reports of lug nuts being removed from officers cars in or around Detroit.

Police in Detroit seemed equally perplexed as to why gang members might engage in such an act, one that provided no clear incentive but risked arrest and placed the general public unpredictably in harm's way:

"The idea that people would think that's a good idea in any way actually baffles my mind," said officer Mark Diaz, of the Detroit Police Officers Association. "This creates a very dangerous situation not just for our police officers but for the general public, When a tire comes off a car, it creates a fatal environment."

The claim mirrored many preceding it involving vague, motiveless "gangs" giving shape to otherwise formless fears about a topical and volatile real situation. In this instance, many people were concerned that then-ongoing civil rights demonstrations could inspire bad actors to harm police officers, a fear realized with the murders of two New York Police Department officers in December 2014. The circulation of "warnings" about what "gangs" might do served as a vent for ambient fears not only for the safety of law enforcement officers, but also for those who openly and vocally support them. Assigning a specific, preventable act to the unspecified criminals afforded a measure of certainty and potential control over what was a frighteningly unpredictable controversy: No one could predict an incident in which two innocent officers were ambushed and gunned down while on their lunch break, but police and their supporters can consistently check their lug nuts and thereby obtain a small bit of otherwise elusive security in the wake of the murders.

Last updated:   6 January 2014

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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