Law Enforcement "Challenge Coins"

Recently I heard about Law Enforcement “Challenge Coins” that have been circulating police departments across the country that have experienced civil unrest and it sparked my curiosity.  What I uncovered besides the history behind these “Challenge Coins” was the dark side behind the unofficial ones within law enforcement agencies.  The first military challenge coins, were handed out in 1969 by a US Army Colonel to build camaraderie in his Special Forces unit. The idea stemmed from a National Guardsman who had required his troops to always keep a sixpence coin on them in order to buy drinks for their buddies.  Soldiers caught empty-handed during a “coin check” typically must buy a round.  By the 1980s, the “Challenge Coins” had taken off in the military and beyond.  And as police began equipping themselves and acting more like soldiers, they started minting their own. These law enforcement challenge coins often embrace “warrior cop” ethos—the violence, racism, and impunity that have sparked our current controversy with law enforcement culture.

The issue with uncovering these coins is that they can’t be disclosed in any open records request since they aren’t considered a record nor are they official in most cases. Official challenge coins tend to be shiny and inoffensive. But unofficial coins often celebrate cops behaving badly.  I spoke with a representative within the Kenosha Police Department and Kenosha Sheriff’s Department in regards to their “Challenge Coins”.  “Within the KPD they are not authorized by the department and are paid for by individual officers” the spokesperson stated.  The Sheriff’s Department had the same claim with the exception to ones they hand out during Christmas which comes out of the department’s yearly budget.  NSM hasn’t been shown any images of the Kenosha County Sheriff’s “Challenge Coins” but we did get a first-hand look at a couple from the KPD and a third that was described to us.

The first coin we were shown was from the old version of the Kenosha Gang Unit Emblem and on the back side the year the gang unit was first created.

The second coin that was described to us was in regards to Trevor Albrecht who was in charge of the Special Investigations Unit who passed away tragically during a snowmobile accident where an officer made them with "SIU" and Trevor's quote "Mission First" along with an image of him.  The coin was used to help raise funds for Albrecht's family.

Coins like this, along with the coin made in memory of Navy Seal Diver and Master Chief Carl Brashear along with the hundreds of other coins used within special units or to commemorate a particular officer have an honorable meaning behind them.  With the officer I spoke with at the KPD, they were also given a coin in recognition of a job well done during the civil unrest by the U.S. Attorney.

The third coin that NSM was shown pertained to the civil unrest in Kenosha.  While on its surface the coin doesn’t spark controversy unless we count the Blue Lives Matter flag in the background and the massive police force standing in riot gear in front of the Kenosha County Courthouse with a thin blue line under the officers with the slogan “Hold The Line”.  Besides the underlying racial tones of the “thin blue line” this particular coin isn’t anywhere near as bad as some of the others that have circulated around the country.

History behind the "Thin Blue Line"

During a traffic stop in May 2020, Connecticut State Trooper Matthew Spina screamed obscenities and placed his hand on his gun while ordering a motorist to get out of the car. “You’re fucked,” Spina yelled in a video captured by the driver. “How’s that sound?” Spina was suspended, yet in a challenge coin made for his fellow law enforcement officers, he was immortalized as “Every LEO’s hero.”

Other coins have commemorated “blue flu” walkouts and the riot squads (“hats and bats”) that responded to Baltimore’s Freddie Gray protests in 2015 and the George Floyd protests in 2020.

A recent one reportedly made by a former Louisville officer shows nightclub-wielding cops in front of the flaming skyline of the city where protesters took to the streets after Breonna Taylor was shot to death in a botched police raid.  

New York City is riddled in challenge coins. Coins have been made to honor an officer who shot and killed four people and commemorate the harassment of a “rat” who blew the whistle on internal corruption. In 2017, members of the Police Benevolent Association made a coin to raise money for a wounded officer from the 67th Precinct in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. One side was embossed with a Jamaican flag and the phrase “Fort Jah”—a racist nickname for the neighborhood, which has a large West Indian community. A caption read: “For those who like hunting there is no hunting like the hunting of man.” One version included an image of a Black man being cornered by armed officers with the inscription “LET THE GAMES BEGIN.”

Several NYPD Gang Squad coins feature the logo of the comic book vigilante the Punisher, whose co-creator has called out its use as a symbol “co-opted by forces of oppression and to intimidate black Americans.”

It’s not just cops who have embraced challenge coins. In 2019, Customs and Border Protection officers that depicted a mass of people marching under a Honduran flag. “keep the caravans coming,” it read, referring to the Central American migrants President Donald Trump had demonized as part of his crusade to close the US-Mexico border. (CBP said this coin was “not officially approved.”)

Another coin for border patrol agents is embossed with a grinning skeleton pointing two smoking pistols; another shows Trump in a CBP uniform with the legend “protect the border or close the border.”

Presidents since Bill Clinton have dispensed challenge coins. Not surprisingly, Trump broke the mold with a blinged-out medallion featuring an image of Mar-a-Lago as well as a collectible with portraits of him and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (yours for $100 at the White House Gift Shop). The president is also the subject of many unofficial coins, including one for the NYPD counterterrorism unit that protects Trump Tower. It features a golden relief image of the man who’s called himself the “chief law enforcement officer of the federal government” cradling an assault weapon, looking ready to stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone.

A coin circulating around the California Highway Patrol shows an image of a man on the hood of a squad car with the quote "There are no free rides".

Another civil unrest coin circulating around Phoenix Arizona depicts a protestor being shot in the groin which we have seen during dozens of live stream videos and claims from protestors being intentionally shot in the genitals, especially for the men, with the phrase "Good Night, Left Nut".

Several other "Challenge Coins that NSM found circulating the internet are pictured below and this is only a handful of the potential coins that have surfaced around the country.  The issue with the vast array of unofficial "Challenge Coins" that are within departments across the country only further shows a serious concern when it comes to police brutality, violence and racism within law enforcement agencies.  The problem lays when we take something pure and innocent and turn it into something dark.



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