Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Public safety

Police say public should not fear misuse of RNC commemorative badges

TAMPA — When police retire, many create shadowboxes with mementos from their years of public service, including letters, awards and memorabilia from special events they worked.

That's what the Tampa Police Benevolent Association had in mind when it ordered up specially made Republican National Convention commemorative police and sheriff's deputy badges to sell to its members and others in the law enforcement community. Made by a badge maker for the Secret Service and the Pentagon, the police version includes the city of Tampa's seal and space to engrave official badge numbers.

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor authorized them to be worn by the city's sworn officers instead of their usual police badges during the week of the convention. State law requires Hillsborough sheriff's officers to wear a certain type of badge, so they can't wear a deputy version of the badge.

The $65 badges are available only to retired, reserve and current law enforcement officers. After the event, they will be available to nonsworn law enforcement employees.

Despite the precautions, the circulation of these badges worries some Hillsborough County residents, who fear they'll end up in criminals' hands.

"Even though they're well meaning, and I understand they're selling them for a particular fund, isn't anyone else concerned about them selling these badges in our particular county?" asked Lithia's Bonnie Tilley-Khan, 58, daughter of a West Virginia state patrol and probation officer.

Tilley-Khan cited recent incidents involving police impersonators as reasons for concern.

On Saturday, New Port Richey police arrested a Tarpon Springs man who flashed officers a gold shield resembling an official Florida Department of Law Enforcement badge.

Last June, Tampa police said a 29-year-old man posed as an off-duty cop and sexually battered a 19-year-old woman. In February 2011, Luis Munuzuri-Harris was sentenced to life in prison for impersonating an officer and kidnapping and raping a woman he pulled over on Bayshore Boulevard the year before.

Neither of those men, however, displayed a badge.

Greg Stout, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, said the commemorative badges, which clearly and prominently say "Republican National Convention," should not cause concern any more than any unofficial police badge for sale.

"For the one week during the RNC, they'll be an official badge according to TPD," Stout said. "But after that, not at all. They're just a commemorative badge."

The police association will check the credentials of everyone who orders a badge, Stout said. Sworn law enforcement officers will have to pick them up in person or from their assigned law enforcement agency, he said.

"This RNC badge is only valid through the week of the RNC," Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said. "This is not unusual. It happens all over the country whenever law enforcement agencies are hosting historical events. It is a commemorative piece, and it gives the officers a sense of pride in being part of the event."

Tampa police have used special-event badges on duty at least once before when Tampa hosted a Super Bowl and have never had any problems, Davis said.

People worried about police impersonators can always check credentials on the spot by asking to see a city ID or by calling dispatch to verify an identity.

"Just because someone shows you a badge doesn't make them a police officer," Davis said.

Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies won't be using RNC commemorative badges during the convention, sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said.

State law specifies that Florida sheriff's offices must all have similar badges with the same elements to help the public determine true, sworn-in deputies.

Those elements include the shape of a five-pointed star, the state seal and a map of Florida.

The deputy version of the RNC commemorative badges includes many of those elements except a map of Florida.

After some confusion over whether the badges would be available to collectors after the GOP convention, Stout told the Times they will be limited to law enforcement employees. Buyers will be required to sign contracts drawn up by the police association's attorney prohibiting resale.

Before Monday, Stout had said the association had sold a couple of hundred badges.

Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.

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