Notes on fake badges

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Check out this fascinating NYT article on the use of fake badges by New York City police officers (þ Emergent Chaos). The executive summary is that unlike other jurisdictions, the NYPD treats badges like they are made of gold:
In many other cities officers are allowed to have more than one badge, or do not get penalized for losing their badge if promptly reported.

"I remember asking in Miami, 'What happens if you lose a shield?' " said John F. Timoney, the departing chief of police there, who was a first deputy commissioner in New York. "They said, 'You get another one.' It's no big deal."

Mr. Timoney said that he never had a dupe, but that plenty of friends did. "They were so paranoid, they would get a dupe, then they would hide the original in a safe until they retired," he said.


Fake badges cause so much concern that when officers are promoted or retire and are required to turn in their shields, they must place them in a special mold at Police Headquarters to ensure that they fit. That's because most duplicates are purposely made slightly smaller to distinguish them from the original.

Metal badges, while an important symbol of authority, are a lousy method of actually establishing legitimate authority. I have no idea whatsoever what a legitimate NYPD badge looks like and I doubt you do either. Moreover, as this article establishes, it's relatively straightforward to make a fake that is mostly indistinguishable from the real thing (you noticed that the fake badges are deliberately different, right?) An identification card is a much better choice: they're probably not any harder to forge (though potentially you could use holograms and the like as anti-forgery measures), but they have the advantage of being biometrically tied to the holder, so if you do lose your badge then it can only be immediately used by someone who looks a lot like you, which is a lot better than use by anyone who picks it up.

Given that, other than tradition, fetishization of the badge, etc. it's not clear what the virtue of keeping a really tight rein on legitimate badges is. Indeed, if officers are so terrified of losing their real badges that they respond by getting fake badges, then the result may be that they take less care with them than if they were merely told to be careful with minimal penalties. Moreover (as has often been observed about fake ids), you've just created a real infrastructure in the production of legitimate-appearing badges. So, whereas ordinarily if someone wanted to impersonate a policy officer they might need to buy a rare lost badge or find someone to do a custom job, now there are plenty of people set up to make high quality duplicates.

Oh, I should mention that this passage reflects a rather odd theory of authenticity:

Called "dupes," these phony badges are often just a trifle smaller than real ones but otherwise completely authentic.

Marcel Duchamp, call your office..

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