Dana Larsen: Challenge coins reveal disturbing side of policing

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      "Challenge coins" are little custom-made tokens used by military and police to commemorate campaigns and build team spirit.

      Most of them are innocuous, some are kind of silly, but many of them reveal a troubling trend in policing.

      Recently the Calgary Police prohibited distribution of a challenge coin for their Firearms Training Team, which had been in circulation for over a decade. The coin depicts police rifles around a skull with a bullet hole in its head.

      After the coin gained publicity, the police service admitted that it was "obviously offensive" and banned officers from circulating it.

      Yet the reality is that there are plenty of other offensive and disturbing Challenge Coins in use by Canadian law enforcement. Let's take a look at some of them.

      Last year, a Toronto police officer got in trouble for wearing a patch with a Punisher logo on it. But the Punisher logo actually appears on a variety of these Challenge Coins. For example, the Toronto Court Officers have a Challenge Coin with the same Punisher logo and slogan that got the Toronto cop in trouble.

      The Vancouver Airport Enforcement Team uses a Punisher logo with an X on the skull.


      And the Canadian Border Services Agency also uses the Punisher logo, this time wearing half a Spartan helmet.

      The Punisher skull has unfortunately been embraced by many police officers, although in the comics themselves, the Punisher character has repudiated police who display his logo and told them that they should idolize Captain America instead.

      Many of these Challenge Coins raise questions.

      Here's the one for the Vancouver Police "Public Safety Unit"—a flaming Phoenix rising from the "Ashes of Chaos." (Honestly this looks to me like the Phoenix is actually causing the fires of chaos.)


      The Spy vs Spy characters also show up a lot. Created by a Mad Magazine cartoonist during the Cold War, they were designed to mock the CIA and KGB and point out their similarities. The RCMP "Strike Force" in Surrey uses a coin which combines them with the "All Seeing Eye" from the US $1 bill, and the bizarre slogan "Justice is blind, but we have the eye."

      The Calgary Police "Strike Force Unit" Challenge Coin also uses Spy vs. Spy, with the Latin slogan translating to "If I told you, I'd have to kill you."

      Toronto Housing has its own special "Community Safety Unit" for law enforcement and security on their properties. Their Challenge Coins are extreme. Here's one with the Spartan helmet on one side, and a skull wearing a mask with a pair of pistols held in bony hands on the other.

      And here's another one from the Toronto Housing Authority, with a skull and an Iron Cross.

      The Toronto Housing Authority replied to a recent Twitter post of these coins, saying it doesn't know their origins, but they are "remnants of another era" and "do not reflect our company's values of respect, diversity and inclusion".

      When a Canadian police officer becomes a "Drug Recognition Expert" they get a special coin. All of these coins have the U.S. eagle with a Canadian provincial shield in its chest.

      Placing a Canadian government symbol inside a U.S. government symbol seems to be unpatriotic, making Canada appear subordinate to the USA.

      Here's the coin for a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor in B.C. A skull in a tuxedo, holding a syringe and a joint, surrounded by cannabis leaves.

      The coin is actually a variation of a design that originated with the DEA. This is apparently how police "drug experts" see drugs and drug users.

      Indeed, many of the most bizarre coins are from police drug squads. Themes of skulls and death are common. (Of course Nazis also loved skulls and death imagery on their uniforms. The Nazi skull is called a Totenkopf and was especially used by the "Totenkopfverbände"—the SS organization responsible for administering the Nazi concentration camps.)

      Here's the Toronto Police Drug Squad challenge coin. Note the diamond and filigree on the skull. Also note how the eye sockets contain what looks remarkably like the stylized S bolt of the Nazi SS logo.

      Here's the Sudbury Drug Enforcement Unit coin. Apparently it's going after syringes, pot leaves, lightning bolts, pills, cigarettes, triangles, and Xs. Note that it's also in the shape of a skull.

      Below is the coin for the Laval Police Service Drug Unit in Quebec. Note the shapes of women's bodies in the horse's mane.

      Here's the Langley drug cops' coin. They sure love their skulls!

      Here's the coin for the Hamilton Police drug squad "Alpha Team." The red maple leaf in the skull's eye is a bold artistic choice.

      These are only Canadian policing coins above. There are many American ones that are just as bad and often much worse. I've only shared the most egregious coins here.

      Surely, if a skull with a bullet hole is "obviously offensive" and unsuitable for distribution, then police and authorities across Canada should be taking a second look at many of these other coins, which are much worse.

      On the other hand, let's keep in mind that while many of these coins are threatening and seem kinda fascistic, most of the Challenge Coins out there just have police logos or are a little more fun.

      There's nothing wrong with the concept of Challenge Coins by themselves, but rather it's the threatening nature, celebration of skulls and violent imagery in so many of the coins that is alarming.

      So I will leave you with this fun Challenge Coin from the North Vancouver RCMP as a palate cleanser.