Brown curbs badges given to public
California police chiefs and sheriffs could be violating state criminal law if they issue honorary badges to members of the public, the state attorney general concluded in an opinion released Tuesday.
The decision came 15 months after The Times reported that Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle and San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos had issued badges and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca had issued identification cards to dozens of political supporters, creating an impression that they were legally empowered.
Law enforcement officials said the opinion resolved apparent ambiguities in state law and would have a broad and immediate effect. For many years, law enforcement and local and state government officials have issued badges to the public and to employees who were not sworn peace officers.
Officials think that the opinion from lawyers for Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown could apply to such diverse personnel as animal control officers and courtroom clerks who are issued badges by their agencies.
The opinion, written by Deputy Atty. Gen. Marc J. Nolan, said California law prohibits anyone from giving a badge “that would deceive an ordinary reasonable person into believing that it is authorized for use by a peace officer” to anyone who is not a sworn peace officer.
“An honorary badge should be as distinguishable as possible from badges used by peace officers,” Nolan wrote. “The more an honorary badge resembles an authorized peace officer badge in shape, markings and other indicia ... the more likely the badge will deceive an ordinary reasonable person and the more likely that a person furnishing or displaying the badge will be found to have violated” the law.
In recent years, several people have been prosecuted for, or admitted to, displaying honorary badges during traffic stops or other encounters with law enforcement.
Two of Doyle’s political contributors told The Times that they displayed their honorary badges during encounters with law enforcement. One used it to gain access to a secure area of the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, the other showed it to police officers serving a search warrant at his business.
A Compton man was arrested in December after allegedly showing Redondo Beach police officers a badge issued to him by Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton).
Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco said in a statement that he planned to direct his staff to meet with Doyle to make sure he is no longer issuing badges to anyone except sworn personnel. The attorney general prepared the opinion at the request of Pacheco’s predecessor, Grover Trask, who was concerned by The Times report.
“There should be no question now that badges should be dispensed only to sworn peace officers,” Pacheco said. “The risk that an ordinary person could be deceived is high. We will enforce the law now as it has been clarified. We look forward to talking with Sheriff Doyle to find out if his previous practices have ended.”
Doyle scheduled a meeting today to discuss the opinion with his senior assistants. He issued the badges in 2005 to members of his Sheriff’s Executive Council, many of them Los Angeles County businessmen who had contributed to his political campaign. He said the badges were so different from those issued to his deputies that they did not violate the law, but he ordered members to return them.
Riverside County Undersheriff Neil Lingle said the opinion could affect scores of agencies and personnel throughout the state, including animal control officers, law enforcement dispatchers and state and local elected officials.
“This does not just apply to us. We have questions as a criminal justice community to answer,” Lingle said.
Ramos, who issued badges to political supporters who formed the San Bernardino district attorney’s Bureau of Justice, said he recalled the badges in 2003 and hasn’t issued any since then.
“Although the opinion specifically involves an honorary badge from a sheriff, we believe that it should also be applied to district attorneys,” Ramos said. “The principles set forth here are ones that this office has followed since my review and change of policy in 2003, when I discontinued the use of honorary badges.”
Baca gave sheriff’s identification cards to members of his now-defunct Homeland Security Support Unit, many of them contributors to his political campaign. A spokesman said the unit has been suspended and that most members had returned the cards.
Even though state law makes it a crime to issue badges as well as identification cards that could deceive the public, the attorney general’s opinion focused narrowly on badges because the Riverside district attorney asked only for a review of Doyle’s conduct.
“This opinion appears to be dealing with badges, and we’ve never issued any badges except to dutifully sworn deputy sheriffs,” Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said.
“However, there may or may not be implications that apply to identification cards and we’re certainly going to look at that,” Whitmore said.
Former San Francisco Police Chief Anthony Ribera, now a professor at the University of San Francisco, said police administrators need to be cautious about distributing badges and other identification to the public.
“Even if they are wonderful people, the potential for abuse far outweighs the community outreach aspect,” he said. “You get so many badges out there and you lose control. The next thing you know, the so-called commissioner’s kid has got a badge.”