It almost looks like a real badge.
The gold letters of the New York Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Muhlenberg Township Police Department, or any of the municipalities nationwide that grant honorary badges glimmer beneath stars that seem to signify high rank.
But these badges weren't earned in the police academy, or through years of hard work and promotions. Police departments around the country dole them out in exchange for favors, often in the form of donations to police foundations, or as part of local tradition.
The fake badges are a unique and easy way for police departments to show appreciation to civilians.
But they also carry a hidden cost. According to experts contacted by The Crime Report, the potential benefits in public or community relations are outweighed by the appearance of favoritism.
Prof. Maria Haberfeld, chair of John Jay College's Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice, says departments can be forced on the defensive when civilians try to exert official influence with their honorary badges.
In a 2000 incident that eventually led to an Orange County, NY sheriff losing his job. Newburgh, NY cops said local businessman James Ludlow claimed to be “on the job” while showing off a Sheriff’s Office courtesy badge, according to The Times Herald-Record. Newburgh cops had approached because he was parked in a well-known drug hot spot.
When local politicians began advocating for an end to the courtesy badges, Sheriff Frank Bigger at first compared them to the plastic stars given to kids. Eventually he recalled all of the county's honorary badges.
Incidents in which civilians have posed as cops by showing off their honorary badges have embarrassed police departments across the country for years.
In one notorious but not unusual example last year, a judge ordered a Muhlenberg Township, PA public official to serve probation, community service and participate in an anger management program for impersonating a police officer.
The official, James Murray, displayed his badge—which comes with no legal enforcement powers—when employees of a local branch of BJ's Wholesale Club refused to allow his friend into a store, according to a report in the Reading Eagle.
“[Law enforcement] is prone to various types of misconduct and to add to that a layer that includes civilians is dangerous,” says Haberfeld, adding that law enforcement differs from other professions that offer honorary titles.
“I don’t think it’s [a problem] with honorary doctorates: academia is not a dangerous profession, no one’s trying to get ahead in academia with an honorary degree.”
A 2007 investigation into a Los Angeles group called the “Homeland Security Support Unit” was prompted by a Los Angeles Times report that raised questions about whether local businessmen were receiving badges as rewards for contributing to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's campaign.
And in perhaps the most disturbing recent instance, two underage girls testified that in April 2010 they were assaulted by a Chattanooga, Tennessee man who claimed to be involved in law enforcement. In fact, the man had been awarded a “reserve deputy” rank after assisting the campaign of a former sheriff, according to the Times Free Press.
Greg Austin, 46, the former president of a Chattanooga-based technology company eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of statutory rape.
While fake badges are often whipped out by civilians, Bryan Kearse, a former New York police officer, says real cops are rarely fooled, which explains why so many would-be deputies end up in court.
“The honorary badges that I know of… are small in comparison to the real ones,” says Kearse “Most of the time (such badges are used) in relation to a violation or a small infraction.”
Kearse supports awarding honorary badges as a way to recognize those who support the police. He admits that when he was on patrol, he would exercise discretion when he pulled over someone who had an honorary badge.
“I basically gave them a warning, (but) it would only work for a small infraction,” recalls Kearse.
According to Richard Lavinthal, a former reporter and U.S. Department of Justice spokesman, who now runs the legal media consultancy firm PRforLaw, police departments should find ways to make it clear that honorary badges are not meant to help civilians exert special authority or avoid penalties for lawbreaking.
“I’m not comfortable with anyone who is not a sworn officer or a special agent for either a local, state or federal agency carrying a badge,” says Lavinthal.
“If an agency or a department legitimately wanted to honor someone who has made a substantial contribution to law enforcement, I see no problem with using a special badge, as long as it would be part of a plaque enclosed in two or three inches of Lucite.”
But John Jay's Haberfeld believes police departments should eliminate the practice altogether if they really want to avoid embarrassment or worse.
“It’s nice to give a certificate of appreciation that they can put on their wall at home… it doesn’t have to be a badge,” says Haberfeld, who served as a lieutenant in the Israeli police force.
In Israel, she notes, honorary badges are unheard of.
Graham Kates is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.
Correction Appended: A reference to the Los Angeles Police Department has been changed to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.