By Darcy Costello
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PIKESVILLE, Md. — One challenge coin created by a police lieutenant reads, in part, “Hunt the animal” and depicts a knight brandishing a state flag-emblazoned shield.
Another features a bulldog in a Maryland State Police uniform holding money bags and surrounded by cash, above the words “overtime driven.”
And a green token in the shape of a penis contains a message about the agency “screwing troopers” since 1921, the year it was founded.
Maryland State Police made headlines this year for an offensive challenge coin — a small token collected and traded by some members of law enforcement and the military — with a graphic depiction of female genitalia and a message about being “offended.” Onlookers questioned what it said about the agency’s culture, and some suggested it was meant as a message for Black troopers. Officials said days later that a former state trooper was behind that coin.
Now, disciplinary files obtained by The Baltimore Sun under Maryland’s public information law show state police have produced and circulated a series of questionable tokens in recent years, leading to at least four disciplinary actions since 2020.
The state police superintendent, Col. Woodrow W. Jones III, has forcefully denounced the coins, calling some of the depictions and slogans “demeaning, disgusting and unbecoming of Maryland state troopers.”
The agency declined to make Jones available for an interview, but he made his position clear in a statement emailed in June to current and former troopers.
“If you are a current employee, but no longer care about the perception or success of the Maryland State Police and would rather participate in these childish, offensive and divisive behaviors, then be bold enough to take off the uniform and turn in your badge,” Jones wrote in his two-page statement, which has not been previously reported. “Those who are willing to tarnish the reputation of our shield and badge, and the legacy of our fallen, do not deserve to wear it.”
Despite the unequivocal rebuke, consequences for disciplined troopers have varied, according to the investigative files, ranging from verbal counseling to two days’ suspension without pay. How extensive the investigations were also appeared to vary.
Policing researchers say the coins should be treated as indications of an agency’s culture — that they’re not “trivial tokens,” but rather statements about troopers’ values.
If a police force wouldn’t be comfortable with such “cultural signifiers” pinned to a uniform or posted on social media, then it should “think hard” about whether they’re acceptable as challenge coins, said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who has done research on criminal justice and racial profiling.
“If police departments or the state police say, ‘We’re dedicated to serving and protecting all citizens of Maryland, with equality and dignity,’ but there are cultural signifiers in which they refer to people as ‘animals,’ that’s troubling,” Harris said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in the form of a coin or Facebook post.”
One of the coins was cited in a complaint filed Oct. 24 in federal court by three troopers who accuse the agency of racial discrimination and seek a class-action lawsuit on behalf of employees of color. They say the state police fail to properly address racial harassment, including as an example a coin with a slogan inspired by “Make America Great Again.”
‘We make all kinds of bad things possible’
When an anonymous complaint was sent in October 2021 to state police about an “offensive and inappropriate” coin that read “Hunt the Animal” on one side and “Don’t Lie, Work Hard, Give a F***” on the other, an investigation began.
The complaint identified the coin’s creator as Lt. Robert Connolly, who commands the Centreville Barrack in Queen Anne’s County.
A captain tasked with investigating noted in a file on the case that Connolly “does not dispute” he designed the coin and “has taken full responsibility.” The file shows that Connolly received a written reprimand that November, ordering him to stop using the phrases and “be mindful” of language “so as not to offend employees or the public.” The file does not reflect whether Connolly was asked what he meant by “Hunt the animal.”
Harris questioned the coin’s words.
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“When we start talking about people who deserve police attention … as animals, we direct our police officers into methods and thinking that I think any police department would find unacceptable,” Harris said. “When we dehumanize, we make all kinds of bad things possible.”
The cases involving other challenge coins resulted in various internal charges and different punishments.
There was a May 2021 investigation into a coin that read “Make Waldorf Great Again.” The allusion to former President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was connected to a traffic enforcement campaign at the Southern Maryland barrack. The slogan drew media attention and one administrative investigation, resulting in then-1st Sgt. Edward Luers being suspended for two days without pay.
The Charles County NAACP at the time called the use of the phrase reckless and irresponsible, according to news reports, adding that it “raises troubling issues of the state police engaging in harmful racial stereotypes,” in part because Waldorf and the county are now majority Black.
Luers, who has since retired, told The Sun in an interview that he thought the coin was mischaracterized, and while he didn’t work on the traffic initiative, he created the coin to honor its successes. It was the second he’d made, he said.
Luers said he didn’t know there was an investigation into the initiative’s name or any controversy until he saw a news story after he created the coin.
“I had no clue about any of that,” said Luers. “Challenge coins are very popular these days.”
Requests for comment sent by email to the other troopers who were disciplined for coins were not returned.
The investigation into the overtime coin, in August 2021, led to a loss of a day’s leave and a written reprimand for Trooper Kamil Koziol.
The July 2020 probe into the green phallic challenge coin that mentions “screwing troopers,” meanwhile, led only to counseling for Trooper William Crook following a finding that a charge of opening the agency up to criticism or ridicule was sustained.
In that investigation, a corporal said he tried to “head it off early before it became an issue” by speaking with Crook about how it “ridicules MSP and how it does not look good in today’s climate to have these items circulating between Troopers.” The corporal, who does not appear to have alerted Internal Affairs to the coin before advising Crook about its negative effects, said he believed the coin design stemmed from an earlier investigation in which Crook felt “targeted.”
Of the four files obtained by The Sun, the most extensive investigation appears to have taken place for the “Make Waldorf Great Again” coin, the only one that received news media attention during its probe. It was the only file to state how many coins were ordered or produced (200 coins for $865); the only one to include messages between the trooper and the business that created the coin ( U.S. DOD Coins); and the only one with a signed investigative letter outlining findings and recommendations.
A state police spokeswoman said last month that there were no open internal investigations of challenge coins.
How should the coins be handled?
Challenge coins in law enforcement, generally, are small items exchanged within or between agencies, to commemorate group membership or specific experiences.
Kym Craven, the executive director of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, described them as symbolic of camaraderie and positivity, and said her organization gives coins to conference attendees or sells them in silent auctions.
Craven said that in her 36 years in law enforcement, she’s never heard of “so many” offensive coins in one organization. She called the number of occurrences, the “vulgarity” of some of the coins and the targeting of specific groups “egregious.”
But that there have been investigations is a positive sign about how seriously the agency is taking coins, she said.
In the statement from Jones, the state police superintendent, he told current and former troopers his response to each challenge coin incident has been to “order immediate investigations.”
The statewide law enforcement agency, with roughly 1,440 sworn employees, according to a 2021 report, enforces criminal and traffic laws across Maryland and coordinates with or assists other law enforcement agencies.
Jones lamented in his June message there were more “Google alerts” about the challenge coins in the previous several days than “anything positive” done by the agency, and that critics hold the issue up as an example of “why law enforcement cannot be trusted to treat all people fairly and with respect.”
“It is incredibly sad that the actions of a few have become a national embarrassment for the Maryland State Police,” Jones wrote.
Harris and Michael Sierra-Ar?valo, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched police culture, agreed the questionable coins warrant the same kind of investigation as any other message from law enforcement.
Sierra-Ar?valo said the coins’ themes — distrust of administrators, denigration of women, sexism — likely aren’t beliefs unique to the agency. Challenge coins across American agencies tend to “look a certain way,” and Maryland State Police isn’t an “outlier” in terms of the topics troopers highlight on the coins, he said.
Agencies in Arizona, New York, Texas and other places have faced scrutiny for coins circulating among members in recent years. And Sierra-Ar?valo noted other signifiers, such as tattoos, T-shirts and wristbands, can reflect law enforcement values and culture.
“These are armed agents of the state with profound authority to deprive people of liberty and life,” Sierra-Ar?valo said. “The standards are, and should be, different than essentially saying, ‘Boys will be boys.'”
(C)2022 Baltimore Sun.
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