Collecting the Police: Badges? Of Course We Need Those Stinkin’ Badges

This original vintage decommissioned out of service City of New York Police Badge sold for $6,160 on eBay in 2016.

Normally the police come looking for you.  But there is a dedicated group of folks that enjoy going out of their way to find them, in the form of badges and patches. And it’s a rather loyal following as I recently found out at the Fairfax Regional Badge and Patch Show sponsored by the Fairfax County Police Association in Virginia.

Mostly active or retired police, sheriff or national law enforcement professionals, and collectors sorted through an enormous range of local sheriff and police department patches and vintage badges.  A rather large display of US Secret Service patches nearby appealed to me particularly.

With nearly 1.1 million police professionals in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice, that translates to about 15,000 active state and local police agencies across the country, half of those with departments of less than 10 officers and staff.  And that’s just the United States.

The earliest police forces formed and managed under local control in the United States were in Boston in 1838, New York in 1844, followed by Philadelphia in 1854.  Prior to that, local communities were patrolled mostly by volunteer neighborhood watch-type programs. The professionalization of police forces began in the 1920’s, which lead to more official looking badges and identifiable patches.  

“It wasn’t unheard of for newly sworn officers to have their own personal badge to be handmade and purchased with their own money,” says Larry Wilkins, a retired Fairfax County police officer and organizer of the Fairfax Regional Badge and Patch Show.

That’s what makes police badges and patches as a collectible most interesting.  The sheer numbers available in as many different designs and formats, from handmade to limited commemoratives, can lead to a lifetime of collecting.

Of course, that is also where actual law enforcement may get more involved. It seems that many of the available patches or badges, like any valuable collectible, may also be easily counterfeited.

“Check the hallmark on the reverse, the kind of wear it has, whether the design is the right one and small things like the clasp and even its weight,” says Larry Wilkins.

“To know the difference between a reproduction and a legitimate badge, for example, requires experience,” cautions Wilkins. “Check the hallmark on the reverse, the kind of wear it has, whether the design is the right one and small things like the clasp and even its weight.” He cautions to always ask questions of those more experienced in the field.  “We all have learned our lessons the hard way,” he continued. That can be true for every collectible, as well.

The Worthopedia shows why, too. A vintage early New York City detective badge sold for $6,160 in 2016; but, vintage police patches can have a high collector value. A vintage patch from the police department of Alviso, California, for example, sold in 2013 for $3,630. The reason may be that Alviso was a separate small city until it became a neighborhood of San Jose, Calif. in 1968, making the police department patches and badges highly sought after.

This vintage patch for the Alviso, Ca. police department sold for $3,630. Alviso is now a neighborhood in San Jose.

You can get started with much less, though. Many shows like the Fairfax Police Badge and Patch Show have tables, boxes, bags, and showcases full of patches and badges to start any new collection or to fill a vintage collector’s needs, too, starting at just a few dollars.  There are other shows around the country all the time. Check with Police Collectors News at PCNews-online.com for shows nearby.

There are other law enforcement memorabilia for collectors besides patches and badges at shows. A vintage police car was on display outside the Fairfax show, with a limited amount of uniforms, gear, signs, credentials, weaponry, flags, commemorative plaques, challenge coins, postcards, photos, toys, insignia, license plates, pins, and buttons for sale, too.

There are no federal patches or badges for sale here, though.  

“This show is for legitimate collectors only,” says Wilkins. “It’s one reason it isn’t advertised extensively except to those already collecting.  Even the signs directing you here only use the association acronym, not what it’s for.”  The reason: buying vintage patches and badges with the intent to misrepresent yourself as a police officer in any form, even with a vintage item, will allow you to experience how the police operate—from the inside and for a long time.

A display of vintage U.S. Secret Service patches.

Trading and selling vintage police memorabilia, especially in this day and age of tight security, can be problematic as Ronald Cook of the UK found out the hard way. His entire rather large collection of vintage police memorabilia—items he routinely sold to movie and television producers like the BBC—was confiscated by a judge in 2014 when he couldn’t prove that his customers weren’t terrorists, as required under the Police Act of 1996. He was fined about $750, but lost his entire collection worth about $16,000. That was in the UK, but it’s still a cautionary note in the U.S. as well–know who your customer is.

Still, collecting vintage law enforcement badges and patches is a great way to feel the history and the growth of communities and the issues that connect and even divide them. From the prairies of the Old West to the large cosmopolitan “big city,” someone has to keep the peace and they’ll do it with “just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

And, hey, let’s be careful out there.


Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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