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It’s a Star Attraction : Eager Collectors Stalk Police Badges and Patches as If They’re Chasing America’s Most Wanted

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For those caught up in the collecting mania, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whether the object of desire is a priceless painting or a painted beer mug. That explains why Richard Chambers can get so excited about his Tucson Airport Police Department shoulder patch.

“Tucson, Tucson’s the rarest,” he declared. “There’s only four airport patch collectors that I know of, that I communicate with, that have Tucson.”

Chambers belongs to a small but dogged band of collectors who stalk police department patches and badges when they are not stalking lawbreakers. Most of the estimated 2,000 patch and badge collectors nationwide are active or retired law enforcement officers.

A former airport police officer turned Los Angeles County park ranger, Chambers was among about two dozen collectors who rented space to display, sell and trade their patches and badges at a show last weekend in the Bell Community Center.

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With more than 200 patches, including one from the Pago Pago International Airport Police in Greater American Samoa, Chambers is believed to have the world’s third-largest shoulder patch collection.

Although small in number, the collectors are obsessive about what one calls the “Holy Grail,” that hard-to-get patch or badge.

Take, for example, David Schulberg, a Compton school police officer, whose specialty is defunct departments. He has been on the trail of Alviso and Avalon patches for years.

“Two years ago, one sold for $175,” Schulberg said wistfully of a coveted Avalon patch.

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(Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies took over law enforcement duties in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island in 1962. Alviso, located at the south end of San Francisco Bay, was absorbed by sprawling San Jose in 1968.)

Collectors such as Schulberg and Chambers build their inventories at shows and by pleading with other departments for insignia. The next big collectors event is the 11th annual Porky D. Swine show Jan. 11 in Sierra Madre, which is advertised as California’s longest-running patch and badge swap meet.

At the Bell show, the most valuable badge on display belonged to William B. Hedges, a retired Santa Ana police officer who wrote and published a book on badges. The shield belonged to a lieutenant in the Lake Arrowhead Police Department, which is now defunct. The badge is solid gold with a sterling silver arrowhead in the center. The price: $1,500.

By contrast, other badges cost as little as $25 or $30. A Special Police badge from Sleepy Eye, Minn., was priced at $50. A U.S. Territory Marshal’s badge from Alaska was priced at $300. A sterling silver badge from Los Animas County in Colorado was also $300.

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Hedges has an extensive collection of badges, many of which represent stories about the departments that issued them.

A Cook County, Ill., sheriff’s badge, for instance, bore the dates 1950-54 to indicate that it was only valid for four years. In the patronage politics of Chicago, a badge was good only if the sheriff who issued it survived the next election.

Hedges also had a 1930s investigator’s badge from the Los Angeles County Department of Charities, a Navajo police badge from the Indian reservation at Four Corners and several marshal’s badges from the Old West.

Dick Bice, a retired sergeant from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, was selling a first-issue badge from the Los Angeles Police Department. The department has had only six different badge designs since it issued the first in the 1860s. He also had a Los Angeles police commissioner’s badge dating from the 1930s.

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Tom Brant, a police officer turned Beverly Hills screenwriter, was only half-joking when he described fellow collectors as “obsessive psychopathic.”

“Some guys are really obsessive,” said Brant, who was on the Monterey Park police force and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“They’ve got to have everything, say, in California,” he explained. But Brant is more selective. “If I don’t like it, I won’t buy it,” he said. “I don’t care how valuable it is.”

Collectors who lust to own one of everything face problems when they come up against departments like the one in Calipatria.

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An eye-blink of a town in Imperial County, Calipatria does not part with its patches. Police Chief J. Leonard Speer is like the tightfisted Tucson Airport Police. He does not take kindly to patch and badge collectors. No one gets Calipatria patches but Speer’s officers--all three of them.

“If I catch anyone with one, I’ll file on them for possession of stolen property,” Speer said. “I tell cops that are patch collectors to spend the time they spend on collecting being good cops.”

Patch collecting has reached fever pitch in some police circles, with departments trying to gather all the patches from, say, a state or one region in order to create a display in their stations.

“We probably get five, six, seven letters a month from people collecting badges and patches,” Compton Police Chief Terry Ebert said. “They come from all over the country, really, from all over the world. It’s a big thing in Great Britain. We get a lot of requests from New Zealand, Australia, down that way. A couple years ago we even got a request from Saudi Arabia, so we sent one.”

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Will Berry, a Burbank police sergeant who put together a book on municipal police patches, says the easiest way to acquire patches is simply to ask departments for them and then trade with other collectors until you have the ones you want. Most departments are willing to sell their patches at cost--as low as $3--to law officers who collect them.

“Sometimes,” Berry said, “departments will charge around $10 to help raise money for their police associations.”

Badges are harder to come by than patches because law enforcement officials do not want badges circulating, lest someone impersonate an officer. Bell Police Cmdr. Mike Trevis, who helped organize the show in his city as a benefit for the block club program there, said no one but police officers can buy badges at shows and that the buyers must have identification.

One of the best avenues for badges, collectors say, is retired police officers willing to part with theirs. Schulberg is combing old newspaper files looking for the names of Alviso police officers who might have lost their jobs when San Jose took over its neighbor. Also, cities occasionally change the design of their patches and badges, meaning old ones are up for grabs.

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Collectors insist that money is not what drives them. It is the excitement of the quest, the camaraderie.

“This is a hobby,” Berry said. “We get together, we trade brightly colored pieces of cloth. That’s what it is.”


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