Perhaps no tool in police work holds the legal or emotional significance of the badge, a few ounces of nickel alloy that is covered by an insignia and a shield number. Badges are routinely handed down from father to child in police families. As rookies, officers are taught to guard them closely and generally to keep them on hand, on duty or off.
But in New York, a city that has become almost synonymous with high security, where office employees wear picture IDs and surveillance cameras are on the rise, some officers don’t wear their badges on patrol.
Instead, they wear fakes.
Called “dupes,” these phony badges are often just a trifle smaller than real ones but otherwise completely authentic. Officers use them because losing a real badge can mean paperwork and a heavy penalty, as much as 10 days’ pay.
Though fake badges violate department policy, they are a quirk deeply embedded in the culture and history of the New York Police Department. Estimates of how many of the city’s 35,000 officers use fake badges vary from several thousand to several hundred — roughly 25 officers are disciplined each year for using them — but the practice has become more sensitive since 9/11 and the heightened concern about police impersonation.
“Let’s just put it this way: lots of people have dupe shields,” said Eric Sanders, a lawyer and former police officer who now represents officers in disciplinary actions.
Federal law prohibits the sale or purchase of counterfeit police badges. Many people suggest that the practice is on the wane, but when Representative Anthony D. Weiner, a Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, pushed several years ago for tougher legislation on badge trafficking, he was visited by a police union official, he said.
“I was given the impression that if we were not to include an exemption for police officers, it would jam up a lot of rank-and-file cops who do make copies of their own badges,” he recalled recently. Veteran police officials said many officers buy a replica badge and leave their original tucked away at home because, as vital as they are, badges do get lost.
“I remember learning about it back in 1965,” said a former chief of department, Louis R. Anemone, who retired in 1999. “I never used one, but I know some did.”
Former officers said they used to buy the phony badges off the Internet or at police equipment stores, paying between $25 and $75, though several shops contacted recently said they did not sell such items. A few police veterans said they believed that many officers bought their second badges at a jewelry shop in Chinatown, near Police Headquarters. They did not want to name the store, however.
“Everybody knows where to go,” Mr. Anemone said.
Even at least one police commissioner has carried a dupe. William J. Bratton, who served as commissioner from 1994 to 1996, said he had the original gold and platinum Tiffany badge, first issued in 1901, encased in a shadow box in the commissioner’s office, where it sits today.
“The police commissioner’s badge is a historical museum piece,” Mr. Bratton said. “It’s worth a small fortune. It’s not practical to carry it around.”
The current commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, does not carry a badge, only an ID card, a spokesman said.
In many other cities officers are allowed to have more than one badge, or do not get penalized for losing their badge if promptly reported.
“I remember asking in Miami, ‘What happens if you lose a shield?’ ” said John F. Timoney, the departing chief of police there, who was a first deputy commissioner in New York. “They said, ‘You get another one.’ It’s no big deal.”
Mr. Timoney said that he never had a dupe, but that plenty of friends did. “They were so paranoid, they would get a dupe, then they would hide the original in a safe until they retired,” he said.
Several current or former members of the department said fake badges do not seem as prevalent as they were years ago, in part because officers have come to see that losing the dupe can bring its own set of headaches. One former officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has family members on the force, said he came to realize that his fake badge, with his real shield number on it, was as much a potential liability as a real one.
“If you drop either one on the street,” he said, “and someone returns it to 1 Police Plaza, someone’s going to say, ‘Is this so and so’s shield?’ ”
Michael J. Palladino, the president of the city detectives’ union, said the use of duplicates was common 30 years ago. “But I think that whole mentality has changed,” he said.
Others disagree. Eliot Sash, 53, an actor who made badges for the movies and television, said many of his best customers were New York City police officers. He estimates that thousands of them are still using duplicates he made.
“I had friends in all the different precincts and they’d call me and I’d go down and meet them in the squad room,” he said. “I’d just walk right in and they’d say, ‘There’s the badge man.’ Everyone knew me.”
Mr. Sash, who was arrested several times for making and selling replica badges, quit the business after his last arrest in 2002, for which he served nearly four years in prison. He contends that he did nothing wrong and is trying to get a federal judge to overturn the conviction. (His sentence was served concurrently with another stemming from a state charge in connection with a false claim that his ex-wife had died in the 9/11 attacks.)
Fake badges cause so much concern that when officers are promoted or retire and are required to turn in their shields, they must place them in a special mold at Police Headquarters to ensure that they fit. That’s because most duplicates are purposely made slightly smaller to distinguish them from the original.
“You can’t tell the difference, trust me. That’s why they have the mold,” said Mr. Sanders, the lawyer. Indeed, some officers at retirement turn in their duplicate badges thinking they are real ones.
Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the Police Department, said about a dozen or so officers are disciplined each year for losing their badges, and up to twice that many for using duplicates. Penalties for both can range from a written reprimand to a loss of 10 days’ pay.
“That’s a significant hit,” Mr. Browne said.
Mr. Anemone said one reason officers got dupes was their fear of losing their real badge at a bar.
“You’re going to go get boxed on a Friday or Saturday night,” he said. “You don’t want to say you lost your shield when you were out drinking, so you carry a dupe.”
Correction: December 3, 2009
An article on Tuesday about New York police officers’ use of fake badges referred incompletely to the crimes for which a man, Eliot Sash, served nearly four years in prison. In addition to his federal conviction for selling fake badges, Mr. Sash was convicted on a state charge in connection with a false claim that his ex-wife had died in the 9/11 attacks, and he received a 1-to-3 year sentence. (The sentences were served concurrently.)