On one side, the coin was to feature a cartoon image of a 1970s pimp with a biracial complexion, dressed in platform shoes and a wide-brimmed hat.
On the other: a silhouette of a woman in a sexually suggestive pose, and a set of handcuffs attached to a pair of brown hands.
Advertised in the Kansas City Police Department’s newsletter, The Daily Informant, the challenge coin was meant to commemorate the police department’s vice unit, tasked with investigating illegal sex work, alcohol sales, adult entertainment venues and human trafficking.
“KCPD Vice Section is ordering a new challenge coin,” the newsletter said. “Click here to view the coin. The coins will be $7 each. All requests need to be submitted with payment by Fri., Jan. 22.”
Almost immediately, the image of the coin set off a round of complaints within the department and prompted an apology from Police Chief Rick Smith. Department leaders stopped production of the coin, and an internal review was ordered to determine why it did not go through the chain of command before it was offered for sale.
Images of the coin have not been publicly available, but multiple people who have seen it described it to The Star. Mayor Quinton Lucas on Thursday said he has seen it and told department leaders he was displeased.
“I thought it was repugnant at the time and shared that sentiment as soon as I learned about it with department leadership,” Lucas said.
Such coins, commemorating particular units and missions, come from a military tradition and have become commonplace in law enforcement across the country. In Kansas City, law enforcement agencies have produced coins for a K-9 unit and last year’s federal anti-crime initiative Operation LeGend.
Community activists and law enforcement experts said the decision to halt the production of the vice unit coin proved that the rendering was offensive and raised concerns about the culture inside the department.
“This is yet another disturbing example of the severity of systemic racism inside the KCPD,” said Gwen Grant, president/CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. “The very fact that such a coin could be designed and promoted among the rank and file is unconscionable.
“Chief Smith is responsible for the culture inside the KCPD,” Grant said. “He has nurtured a culture that ridicules, dehumanizes and demonizes Black people. Smith is culpable. The fact that he intervened to stop production of the coin does not meet our threshold for absolution.”
Hours after the coin was advertised, Smith told the Board of Police Commissioners he had been informed of the image and found it offensive, according to an image of the email obtained by The Star. A hyperlink in the newsletter leading to the rendering was disabled.
Smith told the board he instructed the deputy chief overseeing the vice unit that each member had 48 hours to submit, in writing, how the coin was developed and by whom.
He also told the police department’s media unit that “this type of image should have never been posted and that I count on them to prevent this from happening.
“On a personal note, I truly apologize to anyone that was offended,” Smith wrote. “I can tell you that I am too offended. This should never have happened. A Vice detective who sanctions this type of image should be closely scrutinized for his or her position in that unit.”
The police department’s Office of Community Complaints received 10 internal, anonymous complaints about the coin. A number of those complaints came from female officers and staff.
A rendering of the coin had been approved by several unit supervisors but not by the bureau commander or the deputy chief who oversees the vice unit, according to a source who was close to the events but asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Police officials declined to say whether anyone was disciplined.
‘I saw nothing offensive’
Disabling the link in the newsletter did not discourage some police officers from inquiring about the coin.
More than 165 police officers, civilian employees and retired department members wrote to the vice unit seeking to buy the coin or see the images. Those interested included an assistant division commander, sergeants, homicide and assault detectives, and internal affairs investigators, according to emails obtained by The Star through public records requests.
“That coin is SO ridiculous and I think I need two! Thanks, let me know how to pay you,” one officer wrote.
“Looks like there was some negative feedback about it, but I saw nothing offensive that didn’t represent what you all do on a daily basis,” another officer said in an email. “Let me know the best method to make my $7.00 payment.”
The vice unit is staffed with six detectives and a supervising sergeant, according to Sgt. Jacob Becchina, a police department spokesman.
The coin also featured a notch to open bottles, according to several sources who saw the rendering.
An officer who helped design and promote the coin wrote back to several of those inquiring, saying the coin would not be available.
“Please wait on sending any money. I have been directed to stop all orders pending a new policy regarding Challenge Coins going thru an approval process,” wrote the officer, whose name was redacted in dozens of emails obtained by The Star.
“I believed we had full approval regarding this coin, but I guess not. I will keep you informed of any new updates. If you have sent money I will just send it back to you,” he wrote.
Becchina said the department does not have a rendering of the coin. The department does not produce the coins officially, but the coins do have to be approved by police officials, he said.
“Command staff determined the coin should not be approved for production,” Becchina said in an email to The Star. “If an individual wants to produce a challenge coin depicting some aspect of the department or unit that has to be approved by that respective chain of command.”
A law enforcement trend
The current challenge coins trend began as part of a military tradition in the late 1960s.
Law enforcement later took up the practice as a way to build camaraderie and reinforce a shared mission among police, said Carolyn A. Gallaher, a professor in the School of International Service at American University who studies right-wing extremism in the United States
But challenge coins that mock particular groups or indicate political affiliation often undermine a police force’s ability to do its job effectively, Gallaher said.
It would be reasonable, she said, for Black citizens to question the values and impartiality of a police force that sells challenge coins that mock Black people or have stereotypical images of them.
“It boggles the mind that anyone on the force would think this was acceptable or even useful behavior and that it is in line with the mission of a police force,” Gallaher said.
“It’s entirely logical that Black officers and other officers of color would look at those coins and think they are being disrespected.”
Simmering tensions were likely to be stoked further, she said, when the challenge coin was advertised to vast number of officers and police staff.
Complaints about racism in the Kansas City Police Department have been growing since last summer’s George Floyd protests, and community activists have called for Smith to be held accountable and fired.
Civil rights groups, activists and neighborhood leaders calling for his removal have cited police shootings of unarmed Black men and pointed to the number of Kansas City officers facing charges for violent crimes against Black people. Some have also pointed to the historic numbers of homicides in recent months and the large number that go unsolved.
Other police departments in the Kansas City area have created challenge coins. They are usually traded among those in law enforcement and are generally not available to the public.
The Overland Park Police Department recently produced a challenge coin that honors Officer Mike Mosher, who was shot and killed last May while trying to arrest a hit and run suspect.
The Overland Park Fraternal Order of Police paid for the coin. The police department issues challenge coins to retirees, said Officer John Lacy, a police spokesman.
Federal authorities in Kansas City created a challenge coin to highlight their work during Operation LeGend, a multi-agency crime fighting initiative. It was named in honor of LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old who was shot and killed while sleeping in his bedroom last June.
“The coin emphasized the strong working relationship of local, state, and federal law enforcement during Operation LeGend assisting and protecting our community,” said John E. Ham, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The front of the coin features the bronze sculpture of a Kansas City police officer. The other side has the emblems of the various law enforcement agencies who participated in the operation.
In December, the Louisville Courier Journal reported that a challenge coin created for Louisville, Kentucky, police sparked controversy in the wake of protests after the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor during a botched raid on her apartment.
One side of the challenge coin showed officers dressed in riot gear and holding batons against the background of the city engulfed in flames. The other side bore the words, “uphold the constitution,” “civil unrest 2020” and “protect the city.”
Police officials said they did not produce or distribute the coin, the Louisville Courier Journal reported.
In Kansas City, the police department has made changes in how it manages the production of challenge coins, but it has not put an official policy in writing, said Becchina, the police spokesman.
Officers are being told that all challenge coins must be approved by their chains of command, Becchina said.
Gallaher said Kansas City should emulate other police departments and adopt policy language that upholds certain standards for officers while on the job. That could include requirements to represent the force in a way that does not harm the mission or undermine trust of the community.
Offensive challenge coins are one way a police department can chip away at the credibility it holds in the community it serves, said Nick Mitchell, a police accountability consultant and former Independent Monitor of the Denver Police Department.
“It’s axiomatic in police reform work that “culture eats policy for breakfast,” Mitchell said.
“If the coins existed and included the images your source has indicated, Department and City leadership should look deeply at the Department’s culture to evaluate why such racially charged imagery was used.”
The Star’s Katie Moore contributed to this report.