To Southwest Regional Police Chief John Hartman, the badge is everything.
When he knocks on a door in the middle of the night, it's his badge that tells the homeowner he's legitimate.
And to a lost child, it's the badge that says he's there to help.
But for some, the engraved metal shield represents a burgeoning Internet business in which law enforcement badges — some fake, some real — are bought and sold for anywhere from pocket change to thousands of dollars.
On eBay alone, more than 15,000 badges — for police, constables and emergency workers from all over the world — sell for as little as $1 for an obsolete Lake County, Ill., deputy sheriff's badge or as much as $7,500 for an 18-karat gold Brooklyn alderman's badge from the 1850s.
But what is an innocent hobby for some has proven an opportunity for criminals who use the badges to pose as law enforcement officers, a problem so pervasive that officials in Miami and New York have created “police impersonator” units.
In one of the more bizarre cases, a 14-year-old boy in Chicago bought a badge and badge holder online, obtained a uniform elsewhere, then strolled into a police station. He was issued a radio and police car and told to begin patrolling the streets, where he handcuffed a suspect during an arrest.
It wasn't until he returned to the station that a supervisor noticed he wasn't wearing an official uniform or a gun.
Across the nation, incidents involving badges bought online and elsewhere have made headlines:
• In July, a New York rabbi was arrested for allegedly flashing a phony “Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Officer” badge and shouting “Police! Police!” in order to pull over drivers who cut him off or drove too slowly.
• In Cleveland, a man in plain clothes with a gold badge on his hip allegedly pulled over a female driver, ordered her out of the car, handcuffed her and put her into the backseat. He eventually dropped her off at her home and drove away with her car, keys and cellphone.
• In Youngstown, a woman said she was fondled during what she thought was a traffic stop by a police impersonator wearing a badge on his shirt. When she protested, he fled.
• A Johnstown man was accused of carrying a fake badge and posing as a bail bondsman's bounty hunter in an attempt to get a friend out of trouble for writing a bad check. Hoping the store would drop the charges, the impersonator told store officials his friend had jumped bail.
But Cleveland Police Sgt. Anthony Gorsek said criminals don't have to tap into the collectors' online market.
An impersonator need only flash a black wallet with a plastic badge from a toy store, he said.
“The average person on the street has no idea what's being flashed at them,” Gorsek said. “The badges and insignias circulating among collectors, that's not what's falling into the hands of someone nefarious.”
Amid the heightened security spawned by 9/11, many law enforcement agencies clamped down on access to badges, he said.
Pennsylvania state troopers hand in their badges upon leaving the force and receive one designed for retired members, Trooper Adam Reed said.
Retired Pittsburgh police officers turn in their badges, eventually getting them back with the word “retired” printed on them, spokeswoman Diane Richard said.
And many operators of collectors' websites carefully screen buyers.
“It's kind of a mine field,” said Jerry Kern, 75, who operates copcollector.com. “You have to know what you're doing in terms of where you can ship a badge to or where you sell to.”
Kern, a retired police officer, began collecting and selling badges about 40 years ago and limits his sales to law enforcement officials and “known collectors.”
“I chase away so much business by having that warning on my website,” Kern said. “I'm perfectly happy with that. I have all the business I want from people I know and trust.”
LAWS VARY BY STATE
Laws governing the sale of badges vary.
Federal law makes it illegal to possess a current-issue federal badge, unless it was issued to someone as a member of that specific service, such as the FBI or Secret Service.
While most states, including Pennsylvania, do not have laws governing the sale of state and local badges, a few do:
• Texas bans selling Department of Public Safety or Texas Ranger badges.
• Florida allows only active or retired police officers to buy badges.
• New York state law prohibits selling a New York badge to a state resident, whether online or in person.
“It's impossible to monitor Internet sales ... that would be like counting grains of sand,” Pittsburgh Police Sgt. Michael DelCimmuto said.
If someone is arrested for impersonating an officer with a phony badge, “we'd ask where they got it and we'd back-investigate via eBay” or other websites to find out where the badge was purchased, he said.