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April 09, 2012
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Making police ID cards secure

As with many other things, the biggest obstacles to having a standardized police ID are political, not financial, or technological

Experienced cops know that it’s the ID card, not just a badge, which tells you the bearer is a real cop. Badges are easy to come by, but ID cards carry some confirming details about the person described on it — rank, description, serial number, a photo, etc. Problem is, ID cards are fairly easy to manufacture, too, especially if the person that will be examining it doesn’t have anything to compare it to, and might not even know what an ID card from that agency looks like.

Crucial as these documents are, there is no national or even regional standard for police identification cards. Every agency designs their own, and the safeguards built into them vary from simple plastic lamination (available at any office supply store) to 3-D watermarks and embedded RFID chips. Massachusetts is pioneering an effort to standardize law enforcement ID cards and make them more difficult to counterfeit.

The state has contracted with MorphoTrust to create ID cards for every sworn officer in the state. MorphoTrust is already the producer for most U.S. passport cards and many state drivers’ licenses. Start-up costs are $300 per police station and $9.50 per ID card, with costs being covered by a U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security grant. The new cards will incorporate many of the security features found in modern driver’s licenses, such as “ghost” images in the background of the card, holographic logos, and data features that overlap one another and are more difficult for amateurs to produce.

The state has also created a website dedicated to the Massachusetts Police ID that describes the unique features of a legitimate ID card and urges people to examine any credentials they are given closely.

It’s great that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is standardizing their police credentials, but we’re a long way from having a standard that goes nationwide. One basic problem is that there is no easy way of verifying the legitimacy of a police ID card short of calling up the agency where it was supposedly issued. For driver’s licenses, we have guidebooks with sample photos and security features listed for each state, territory, and province. Even if there was such a guidebook, it would have to be very thick to accommodate the 18,000+ law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

Calling the agency doesn’t always yield the answers you need, especially after hours. Many law enforcement agencies aren’t 24-hour operations. Someone will always answer the 911 line, but a call to a business line may go unanswered for days.

As with many other things, the biggest obstacles to having a standardized police ID are political, not financial, or technological. Every state has a driver’s license bureau, and most states’ driver’s licenses are relatively counterfeit-resistant as compared to those from a few years back. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to have the state driver’s license-issuing agency also take over police ID cards, using a different design with similar security features. This could also establish a statewide automated database of law enforcement officers so that a query through NLETS could verify law enforcement status from the field. This is especially important in the era of LEOSA, where active duty and retired law enforcement officers can carry concealed firearms nationwide.

Law enforcement egos being what they are, many local chiefs and sheriffs don’t want to delegate issuance of their agency’s IDs to a state agency they do not control. That layer of objection tends to derail any attempt to do what Massachusetts has achieved.

There is an intermediate solution for agencies that don’t have the equipment to produce quality, counterfeit-resistant ID cards. The Small, Rural, Tribal, Border Regional Center (NLECTC-SRTBRC) offers a free service where they will produce ID cards for any agency, in any volume, free of charge. The cards are rigid plastic and include design elements from the agency that orders them. For obvious reasons, requests have to come through official channels, but these folks are remarkably and pleasantly non-bureaucratic and inclined to assist in any way they can. For details, contact Kevin Vermillion by email at kvermillion@srtbrc.org.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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