Explicit challenge coin with Maryland State Police logo prompts outcry from Black, female troopers who see ‘complete disrespect’

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A challenge coin with graphic imagery and offensive language, emblazoned with the Maryland State Police logo, is prompting concerns from troopers who see it as a potential response to allegations of racial discrimination within the agency.

Photos of the coin obtained by The Baltimore Sun show two images of female anatomy with slogans referencing people being offended, or not being able to take a joke. One side of the coin, with an image of a woman’s rear end, depicts underwear with the message, “I’m Offended.”

Both sides of the coin appear to include the insignia for the state police.

Maryland State Police spokeswoman Elena Russo said in an emailed statement Thursday that the agency was investigating the coin’s creation, including to determine whether someone in the department was involved with the “design, manufacturing/purchase or sale” of the coins. Russo’s statement said the agency became aware of it Jan. 19, but has “been unable to identify the individual responsible for this violation of Department policy.”

She urged anyone with information on who created it to contact internal affairs at 410-653-4350.

Challenge coins are tokens that people in organizations such as law enforcement agencies or the military collect to commemorate events or membership. They have led to controversies in other police departments, including a coin circulated among Phoenix police officers that appeared to mock an injured protester and coins depicting civil unrest connected to agencies in Milwaukee and Louisville, Kentucky.

Within the Maryland State Police, this challenge coin is the latest to spark an investigation; others have led to disciplinary action within the agency in recent years, according to Russo.

Some, including the leaders of the Coalition of Black Maryland State Troopers and the Randallstown NAACP, say the latest coin is being interpreted as a reaction to issues raised by Black troopers about disparate treatment around discipline, hiring and promotions, as well as racist incidents within the agency.

Those concerns prompted state legislators to call the superintendent of the agency in for questioning last year, with one lawmaker referencing an incident in which a banana was left on the hood of a Black trooper’s car.

Sgt. Anthony Alexander, the president of the coalition representing Black troopers, said there’s been “animosity and division” in the agency following recent complaints, with the challenge coin the most recent example of a culture that needs to change.

“It’s a complete disrespect for your fellow brothers that’s beside you,” Alexander said. “If that is the case, then how do we serve the community? How do we serve Maryland, if we are divided?”

Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP branch, said he’d also heard from troopers who saw the coin as part of an attempt to “downplay the plight of minority and women troopers at the state police.”

Coleman said it’s evidence of a problematic culture that could be having a broader effect on residents.

“If people of color who are troopers, or police who are women, if they’re not being treated properly, how is the regular citizen going to be treated? If you don’t even like the people you work with, how is a regular motorist or someone who needs help, how will they fare?” Coleman said.

The coin also prompted concern from the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, an organization that helped cofound the 30x30 initiative to boost the number of women in police recruit classes to 30% by 2030.

In a statement, NAWLEE executive director Kym Craven called the coins offensive and said the association was available to agencies to assist with “understanding the impact of police culture on the recruitment and retention of women in law enforcement.”

“The coins are offensive and, no matter who the target audience, the coins undermine women in general, not just in policing,” Craven said in a statement. “NAWLEE trusts the Maryland State Police will continue to seek out who is responsible for both producing and distributing the coin, and deal appropriately with the offenders.”

Russo’s statement did not address questions sent by email Thursday afternoon about what the coin suggested about state police culture or about the agency’s response to Black troopers’ interpretation of its meaning.

Black troopers last year accused Maryland State Police of racism and discrimination, particularly around hiring, promotions, membership of special units and disciplinary outcomes, according to media reports.

A state senator from Prince George’s County met with more than 20 Black troopers, a Washington, D.C., TV station reported last year, which prompted her to call the agency superintendent before the legislative Black caucus.

The report from NBC4 Washington highlighted a higher percentage of disciplinary cases against Black officers than their white counterparts, a lack of proportional representation and the incident with the banana, which reportedly was investigated and concluded with no findings of racist intent.

An email sent to Gov. Larry Hogan in March by a state police sergeant, which was obtained by The Sun, made additional allegations, including a barrack commander forbidding troopers from bringing in Chinese food because it “stinks,” which at least one sergeant of Chinese descent found offensive. According to the email, a subsequent investigation found no probable cause for discrimination.

The email also referenced the banana incident, calling it “highly offensive, rude” and a reference to when African Americans were compared to monkeys — “barbaric and uneducated.”

The email called for Hogan to “bring accountability” to the state police and “leave it in a better position.”

Last year, the agency investigated a challenge coin created to commemorate a traffic enforcement campaign dubbed “Make Waldorf Great Again” that prompted concerns from Black troopers, NBC Washington reported.

Another, in the shape of male genitalia, was investigated in 2020 and led to disciplinary action “against the individual found responsible for the creation of the coin,” Russo said Thursday.

A fourth coin, which included the message “Hunt the Animal” underneath “Maryland’s Finest” and what appears to be a knight with the state police logo on a shield, also led to administrative action in November and violated departmental policy, Russo said.

Both were violations of the agency’s rules of conduct, Russo said. Policies posted online show those rules are around topics including courtesy, unbecoming conduct, insubordination, immoral conduct, discrimination, harassment and others.

Rodney Morris, a past president of the Coalition of Black Maryland State Troopers, who is retired from the agency, said even if officials say they don’t condone the coins, there is clearly a culture “willing to buy or feed into this type of behavior.”

“Your brand name is on these coins, and it’s selling within your organization,” Morris said. “Regardless of the meaning behind the coin, it must be condoned by members within the organization, or otherwise it wouldn’t sell.”

It’s not clear when the latest coins with the images of female anatomy were created.

Alexander, from the Coalition of Black Maryland State Troopers, said he received images of the coin Thursday and had heard concerns from several of the coalition’s roughly 45 members.

Alexander, who also sits on the state police’s diversity council, said he plans to send a letter to the superintendent of the state police about the coin. Though the council has spurred discussion and policy changes, the coin shows there is more to be done, he said.

“That’s what’s destroying us, is the culture itself inside the agency that fosters this type of behavior,” Alexander said. “We have to become better as an agency, but we won’t get there until we start really making major changes.”