Police Awards: Stolen Valor Or Honest Mistake?
Apr. 29, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Recently, Orlando Police Chief John Mina ordered his officers to use “only the minimal amount of force necessary.” He also told officers who saw other officers using excessive force to stop the abuse, then to report it. That’s what drew my attention to Orlando, the fact that the police chief would have to tell his officers to follow the law on the use of force. It’s not like this is a change. Police were always supposed to use the minimal amount of force necessary.
A cursory search for unreasonable force finds cases going back to the early to mid-1800s. The fact that Orlando was apparently using force at twice the rate of other nearby police departments indicates that there is a problem. But Chief Mina is apparently addressing it, so we’ll drop that issue for now.
But that brings me to the reason for this post. When I was looking at articles on the use of force issue, I found this photo of Chief Mina, and it immediately sent me down another path.[i] The photo showed Chief Mina wearing U.S. military decorations, or at least the ribbons for those decorations.
Where does Orlando PD get off on using U.S. military award ribbons for its own decorations?[ii] It is completely inappropriate and insulting to veterans and service members.
Look, I don’t have a problem with police wearing award or citation bars. I wore mine with pride when I was a police officer. The citation bars I wore were similar to the ones worn by Waco Texas Police Sergeant Patrick Swinton.
Those citation bars are made by a police vendor and sold to police departments for the purpose of honoring their members. It’s appropriate to make that type of recognition for a department’s officers, and it improves morale.
But it is not appropriate to take military award ribbons and repurpose them for your own reasons. And it is not the first time that this has happened. During the George Zimmerman trial, Jeremiah Workman, a former Marine who earned the Navy Cross, observed Sanford, Florida police officer Doris Singleton wearing military ribbons.[iii]
So in 2013, Workman contacted the Sanford Police Department and asked about it. He was told that the department had gone down to the local Army surplus store and just repurposed the ribbons for their own use. Police Captain James McAuliffe said at the time that it just “wasn’t well thought out,” but that they did not mean to be offensive to veterans or service members. They immediately stopped wearing military ribbons and developed their own program using commercial sources. Chief Cecil Smith, a retired member of the Air National Guard, stated that he had questioned the use of the ribbons and had corrected it.
In West Valley City, Utah, retired Marine Sergeant Major Nick Lopez ran into the same problem. Only there, the awards included awards for valor in combat, such as the Silver Star and the Bronze Star, as well as other high-significance awards such as the Army Distinguished Service Medal. The department there also stopped the use of military awards at the police department.
But these aren’t the only ones. You would think that a police department with just under 12,000 officers could develop their own award system. Yes, I’m talking about Chicago.
Nope, they use military award ribbons too. Their Special Commendation is the Air Force Commendation ribbon. Get a bunch of illegal guns off of the street, get the Air Force Marksmanship ribbon. Do something really outstanding and they’ll give you the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal ribbon, but will call it the Police Leadership Award. This is ridiculous and insulting to veterans. The DSM is the third highest award in the Air Force, behind the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Air Force Cross.
The same thing happened in the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police. They use some of their own, like Chicago, but have also appropriated the Army Service and a NATO award for service in former Yugoslavia. Their Chief wears both.
Legally, there is no problem. The Supreme Court held in United States v. Alvarez that the federal Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional, a restriction on free speech. Justice Breyer noted in his concurrence that:
[A] false claim of possession of a medal or other honor creates confusion about who is entitled to wear it, thus diluting its value to those who have earned it, to their families, and to their country.
I’m sure that these departments don’t intend to insult.[iv] But they do, and a corollary of that is that they are inadvertently representing themselves as something that they are not. Police are already under scrutiny for all sorts of other issues. Why do something like this that sets you up for unnecessary criticism?
[i] Known in the legal field as a rabbit trail.
[ii] The military awards shown on Chief Mina’s uniform, from top left to bottom right are: American Defense Service, Marine Corps Good Conduct, USAF Combat Readiness, Philippines Liberation, Artic Service, Korean Service, National Defense, Humane Action, World War II Occupation, Navy Unit Commendation, Army Reserve Overseas Training, and Air Force Training.
[iii] The awards on Officer Singleton’s uniform were the USAF Combat Readiness, Selected Marine Corps Reserve, DOD Distinguished Service Medal, Philippines Independence, Army Good Conduct, and World War II Occupation.
[iv] The Orlando, DC Metro, and Chicago Police Departments were contacted for comments. The Orlando Police requested a copy of the photograph that would be used. None of the departments have otherwise commented.