Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Page 7



Controversies Over Honorary Peace Officer Badges: Not Unique to L.A. City or County




Ninth in a Series


The City of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles are geographic entities with distinctiveness. Across the globe, people know of Hollywood and its handprints in cement and its “Bowl”; Beverly Hills and its mansions and shops; Malibu and its beaches; the San Fernando Valley and its “Valley girls.”

But lacking in distinctiveness are the flaps that have periodically occurred over issuance by officials of the City of L.A., or the county, of honorary law enforcement badges. Those controversies, chronicled over the past several columns in this series, are typical of ones that have taken place in localities nationwide.

Today: a look at news stories, from the 1920s to the 1960s, relating to badge-conferring practices in other cities within this county, and in other cities and counties in California.

Oakland, 1923: Recipients of honorary badges in that city were termed “special policemen.”


Fuzziness has occurred with some frequency in the first part of the 20th Century as to whether individuals with badges were actual “reserve” officers (as now denominated), expected to perform police duties—when called upon, or per a schedule—or whether they were honorary recipients of a memento, possessed of no duties and no law enforcement powers.

The Oakland Tribune’s Jan. 25 edition reports:

“Commissioner [of Public Health and Safety] Frank Colbourn today started making a list of all those citizens who, under old easy-going regimes, secured the title and badge of ‘special policemen,’ and found the badge very handy in case of being arrested for speeding. All special policemen will be notified that they are liable to duty at any time, and will be asked to keep in constant touch with headquarters.

“‘We are not trying to take these badges away from anyone,’ says Colbourn, ‘and there are many citizens who are well-entitled to them. Others are not. But no doubt as these citizens have accepted the badge and taken the oath, they will be willing to abide by the conditions.’ ”

Torrance, 1931: A July 11 Los Angeles Times story provides this information, reflecting the prevailing uncertainty as to the breadth of authority an honorary badge conferred:

“A defense plea advanced by City Engineer Frank Leonard in police court last night, claiming exemption from the usual $2 fine for failure to make a boulevard stop, because he is the holder of a police badge, was overruled by Police Judge C. T. Rippy. The case, the subject of much discussion since Leonard was given a ticket by Police Officer William Malta last Friday afternoon on an asserted failure to make a boulevard stop at the intersection of Cravens and Magnolia avenues, was disposed of in record time by Judge Rippy, before a courtroom crowded with City Hall attaches.”

Burbank, 1931: The Los Angeles Times’s edition of Sept. 17 says:

“Chief of Police [Lou] Holtzendorff has issued a call for police badges and deputy commissions that were given out by all police regimes that preceded him here.

“The Chief says that rumors have come to him that parties posing as his representatives are asserted to have tried to collect money on a basis of a promise of police protection.”

Alameda County, 1934: An Oakland Tribune article on Dec. 28, 1934, heralds:

“Upwards of 3000 special deputy sheriffs of Alameda County will lose their honorary badges on January 6 and for the most part will not be re-appointed, it was announced today by Sheriff M. B. Driver.”

Driver had been elected sheriff on Nov. 4. He was appointed to that post earlier that year by the Board of Supervisors, while he was serving as mayor of Berkeley.

The Tribune quotes him as saying:

“I am inaugurating a new policy with respect to special deputies to become effective with the start of my new term in office.

“All appointments now in force will be canceled at that time and in the future special deputies will be appointed only where there is actual need for them, and where the need is established to my satisfaction.”

The article observes:

“In the past special deputies have been created almost as freely as Kentucky colonels—on request or recommendation of various police chiefs, officials and influential citizens.”

The newspaper notes that Driver “pointed out that there are men who are employed as watchmen in various industrial plants who should carry special deputy’s badges,” and that upon proof of such need, appointments would be made.

San Mateo County, 1946: The case of People v. Ronald F. Kaehler also reflects uncertainty as to what powers the presentation of an honorary badge conferred on the recipient.

San Mateo County History Museum


Kaehler, the 23-year-old son of the San Francisco stock exchange president, apparently had been issued a  badge, as well as a card certifying his status as an honorary deputy, by Sheriff James J. “Big Jim” McGrath. On April 2, according to news accounts, he purported to act as a law enforcement officer in drawing a gun on two men he suspected of being in the act of stealing an automobile.

One of them ran; Kaehler fired in his direction; he was hit (the defendant testified he merely wanted to cause him to halt) and died from his wound.

The San Mateo Times’ July 13, 1946 edition tells of Kaehler’s conviction the previous night for manslaughter. The article recounts:

“Prosecutor A. S. Whitmore, in his closing argument…branded as without merit Kaehler’s plea that he thought he had a right as a special deputy sheriff to shoot.

“‘If the sheriff himself had shot a man in the back under the circumstances he would be where this defendant is sitting,’ Whitmore declared. He took a slap at Sheriff McGrath’s office when he added:

“‘It’s about time the sheriffs office quit issuing these so-called courtesy deputies’ cards. These cards don’t mean anything....They carry no authority.’ ”

A July 15 editorial in the Sacramento Bee declares:

Kaehler testified at his trial that he was an honorary deputy sheriff of San Mateo and as such had authority to carry a gun and to investigate suspicious circumstances.

It is debatable whether a courtesy badge gave Kaehler any such right, but in effect that is neither here nor there.

The fact remains, however, that the custom of some sheriffs in deputizing citizens for purely honorary or political reasons opens the way to numerous abuses.

There is room for considerable doubt whether courtesy badge wearers make any contribution to law enforcement. And if the badges are worn by persons of the wrong temperament who might wish to parade their supposed authority, someone is liable to get hurt.

The Kaehler case should cause all sheriffs in the habit or issuing [honorary badges] to consider the possible consequences.

Recommendations of the county grand jury are summarized in the April 1, 1947 edition of the San Mateo Times. They include this: “All honorary deputy sheriff badges, cards, or permits be revoked by the sheriff, and that new permits be issued ‘to those persons only who are entrusted with the public’s safety.’”

Kaehler was paroled, without notice to prosecutors, after serving 20 months of a six-year term at San Quentin, according to a May 27, 1948 report in the Times.

Santa Ana, 1960: An Aug. 10 Los Angeles Times article says:

“Marshal Robert Steinberger of the Santa Ana-Orange Municipal Court District, one of several officials accused of handing out honorary badges indiscriminately, resigned [yesterday].

“Among persons who have been quizzed by the Orange County grand jury about receiving honorary badges are [local gangster] Mickey Cohen and Dante DeCanio, the latter now under indictment by the Los Angeles County grand jury for abortion.”

From the Long Beach Press Telegram’s issue on Aug, 13 comes this information:

“Marshal W. J. (Pete) Winslow of Santa Ana announced today he has filed demands with all persons holding special deputy marshal’s badges issued by his predecessor to turn them in.

“There are approximately 145 deputy marshal’s badges outstanding, he said. One of the letters of demand has been sent to ex-mobster Mickey Cohen, he said.

“Winslow said if the demands are not honored, he intends to reclaim the badges in person.”

COMMENT: Winslow’s remark strikes me as an announcement by the new marshal that he intended to utilize his status as head of a law enforcement agency to personally intimidate persons who were lawfully holding gifts from his predecessor into relinquishing their personal property.

But such bullying was nothing new.

As previously recounted here, there were several wide scale recalls in the City of Los Angeles of honorary badges, bestowed on members of the general public, the last taking place in 1938-40. And there was one orchestrated by Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess in 1963.

There’s no doubt that each recall was preceded by frequent misuses of the courtesy badges, which shouldn’t have been given out in the first place. But no statutory authority existed for repossession of them.

Since 1929, impersonating a police officer, under specified circumstances, has been proscribed by Penal Code §146a. Penal Code §538d(b), enacted in 1945, bars use of badges resembling those worn by law enforcement officers. The 1960 version, in effect when Winslow issued his proclamation, provided:

“Any person who willfully wears, exhibits, or uses…any badge…which falsely purports to be authorized for the use of one who by law is given the authority of a peace officer, or which so resembles the authorized badge…as would deceive an ordinary reasonable person into believing that it is authorized for the use of one who by law is given the authority of a peace officer, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

It’s the use of a faux law enforcement badge, not the mere possession of it, that the Legislature has condemned…rendering the recalls heavy-handed stunts.

Carrying a looks-like-real peace officer badge in a wallet and, intentionally or not, conveying the impression by merely opening the wallet of being a law enforcement officer, is quite different from having an honorary badge at home, mounted on the wall, sitting on the mantle, or on an office desk encased in plastic.

It’s no doubt the innocence of such displays that prompted the Legislature in 2000, in revamping §538d(b), to remove a person who simply “exhibits” what resembles an actual peace officer badge—as honorary badges nearly always do—from the reach of the statute.

Through the years, whenever a public official proclaimed that the completed gift of an honorary badge was being rescinded, the recipient’s response ought to have been: “Hell, no—your department  gave it to me, it’s mine.”

Yet, for the most part, there was mindless and spineless compliance.

FOOTNOTE: Holtzendorff, the Burbank chief of police who in 1931 cancelled outstanding badges issued by his predecessors, had a unique approach. Shortly after becoming chief on June 15 of that year, he abolished ranks within the department.

An Aug, 6, 1931 Associated Press dispatch quotes him as saying:

“There’s been too much monkey business about running a police department. Now that I’m head of the department I’m going to run it like a police department, and not like an opera bouffe with a soldier chorus. All members of the department are either plain patrolmen or detectives.”

Holtzendorff resigned after less than a year in office—a somewhat turbulent reign—later becoming police chief in Phoenix, then working as a private detective in Burbank.

Next: Flaps over badges, in other counties, in the 1970s.


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