A Badge of Dishonor

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I glanced at the headline: What Does A Police Chief’s Badge Cost? and assumed it referred to a Chicago-type scandal, whereby important offices were sold to the highest bidder, although I wondered why anyone would bid more than $2.37 for the top cop’s job in St. Louis.

But I was mistaken. The headline referred, quite literally, to the chief’s badge — you know, the shiny thing he wears on his jacket, or carries on his person, indicating that he is not only a cop, but Numero Uno, cop-wise.

Have you ever given a moment’s thought to what such a thing costs? Neither had I, so I was surprised to learn that St. Louis was going to pay $1,987.00 for a badge for its chief of police. That seems a bit much.

Well, it is. Even so, the $1,987.00 badge is only a "backup" badge. The one the chief will be wearing is one of two ordered for the previous chief. They are of solid gold, and cost $5,900.00 each. That particular official resigned — actually, the police board forced his retirement — when some disturbing information came to light about a relationship between his family and the lucrative car-towing business in St. Louis. He kept one of his solid gold badges when he left office, a practice described as "traditional" by a police department spokesman.

The badges — at least the top-drawer ones — are manufactured locally by a firm which is, evidently, very well regarded in its field. For example, it was chosen, in the year 2000, to manufacture the "Order of Solomon," by the Crown Council of Ethiopia. It’s a gold, jewel-encrusted emblem that’s owned by only six people, one of whom is Queen Elizabeth. The St. Louis police chief is in some pretty impressive company! An anonymous employee for the manufacturer believed that the $1,987.00 figure was reasonable, considering the intricacy of the badge, and the workmanship required to make it. He suggested that in other large cities you would find similar-priced badges, and mentioned Los Angeles as an example. The newspaper contacted Los Angeles. Their chief’s badge costs about $60.00. Hmm.

In Kansas City, the police chief wears a badge that cost less than $50.00. In Marin County, California, the police chief of one of its toniest cities wears a badge that cost less than $200.00. The head of the Missouri Highway Patrol wears a $3.15 badge on his lapel. The St. Louis County police chief wears a $110.00 badge.

The Police Board is shocked, simply shocked, that such high prices are being paid for the badges worn by the chief, but has no choice but to pay for them, even though the police department’s supply division ignored proper procedures in ordering them. The incoming chief, who will be wearing the prior chief’s $5,900 badge (but with the el-cheapo $1987.00 backup badge) said that the badges had been ordered before a purchase order had been issued by the Police Board. He indicated he would be amenable, however, to finding a cheaper source of badges. He is reported to have "dealt with those responsible for the purchase."

Except: In 1993, fifteen years ago, the department came under criticism for paying 2100.00 for a chief’s badge, making it hard to believe that the current fiasco is a one-of-a-kind snafu. It makes you wonder if there isn’t a pattern, which is piously denounced whenever it’s uncovered.

Sure, $1,987.00 is small potatoes in a budget that runs into millions. But to those spending it, it’s other people’s money, which is never very valuable. It would be interesting to know about other police expenses. What is paid for squad cars, or guns, or ammunition, or office equipment, etc.? Is an organization that pays $1,987.00 for a bijou going to look for bargains in its other purchases?

"Power corrupts" remains, in my opinion, the best explanation for the operation of government, in all its manifestations. Gold may be incorruptible, but those wearing it may not share that quality.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is author of All Work & No Pay, which is out of print, but may occasionally be obtained on eBay.

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