Photography by Jim Connolly
NJ State PBA’s new display offers unique showcase for the phenomenon of challenge coins
Display cases in the lobby of the NJ State PBA headquarters exhibiting challenge coins tell amazing stories of law enforcement. Check out the one that appears to be replicating a state trooper hat. Or the one from Hamilton Township Local 66 in the shape of a badge. Another coin from North Brunswick Local 160 doubles as a bottle opener. And there’s one commemorating “Florida’s Fallen Heroes” that looks like a teardrop. And the coin honoring Staff Sergeant Jorge M. Oliveira, the Essex County Sheriff’s Officers Local 183 member who was killed in Afghanistan serving in Operation Enduring Freedom, tells a story that brings every member to tears.
The State PBA posted six new showcases recently to harbor what could become the biggest law enforcement challenge coin collection ever. From this point forward, members will be inclined to add coins, so there might be double the amount of display cases at this time next year. PBA Special Projects Coordinator John Hulse, the collection’s de facto curator, asks that if members drop one-off, “Make sure it tells a story.”
Make sure it includes some of the three-dimensional, descriptive detail that Sommerville Local 147 State Delegate Vito Spadea and Dunellen Local 146 State Delegate Joe Dudley designed into the coin honoring Mallory’s Army. Or maybe it should have the wings of eagles like one of the Police Unity Tour coins featured. Or the eagle, the Statue of Liberty and the border that looks like it goes on forever of the 10th anniversary 9/11 coin. Or maybe there’s an annual issue like the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial offers.
Collecting challenge coins has become the fastest-growing frenzy in law enforcement. Building off its military roots, challenge coins have become a solid-gold fundraising concept, an exalted expression of honor for a job well done or mission completed or an ascension in the ranks or a memorable event such as riding the Unity Tour. They have become a bonding agent that extends the blue line around the world and a medal of camaraderie and showing respect that leads to trading them in personal exchanges, expos and multiple social media sites.
“Every time I go through my coins, I pick one up and remember the conversation I had when I got it and the friendship I know have from it,” declares Luca DelGuidice, a Monmouth County Sheriff’s Officers Local 314 member who has collected more than 3,000 challenge coins. DelGuidice also started Custodis Mortalis, LLC, which designs and manufactures challenge coins, including the one of for Mallory’s Army.
“It’s far more than making a piece of metal and putting it in a case,” he continues. “Coins have a history and a connection. They have a history built into them that lasts.”
Why “challenge coins” as opposed to “honor coins” or “mission coins?”
Well, as the story goes, a challenge, which can be made at any time, begins with the challenger drawing a coin and slapping or placing it on the table or bar. In noisy environments, continuously rapping the challenge coin on a surface may initiate the challenge. Everyone being challenged must immediately produce the coin for their organization, and anyone failing to do so must buy a round for the challenger and everyone else who has a challenge coin. However, should anyone challenged be able to produce their coin, the challenger must buy the round.
The lore about challenge coins just makes them that much more phenomenal. For example, there are some restrictions about how to carry your coin. A coin attached to a belt buckle is considered a belt buckle and not a coin. Keeping a coin in a holder or worn around the neck is considered a challenge coin.
Challenge coins rose in popularity after World War II. When fellow service members would meet for the first time, they might “challenge” each other to show their unit’s coin.
All challenge coins are typically limited edition. They can be traded or sold for nominal fees in department locker rooms, through private Facebook groups or at members-only coin shows like the Canada Challenge Coin show that the Toronto Police Department holds each year. DelGuidice attends this event each year that raffles off full display cases of coins to raise money for officers’ families in need.
“Exchanging a challenge coin shows you have a bond with somebody who holds the line,” comments Gil Curtis, a retired LAPD lieutenant who is president of the Unity Tour Chapter VII Challenge Ride. “If somebody gives you a challenge coin, they really respect you a what you do.”
So here’s our first story time:
Curtis has donated a few coins that are currently on display at the PBA, including one with a sprocket chain border made for the Challenge Ride. One that is not there is his “Shootin’ Newton” coin. The Newton Division of the LAPD was located a few miles south of downtown LA, where an average of 100 shooting-related homicides would occur each year. Hence, Shootin’ Newton. It closed in 1996.
A limited number of Shootin’ Newton coins that doubled as money clips were made. Curtis gave one of the last ones to Unity Tour Director Harry Phillips. One year during National Police Week, Phillips met the family of an LAPD officer who was killed in the line of duty. He gave the officer’s brother and wife the coin.
“I didn’t want to give it up, but it was meant to be,” Phillips recalls. “That’s what makes challenge coins so special. It’s like a commemorative thing. You put it in your pocket and it reminds of you of the different years, the different people you meet. It’s another thought; a nice one. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about that.”
The story has an even more happy ending. When Curtis found out that Phillips gave up the Shootin’ Newton coin, he took on the challenge to find him another one. And he did.
As president of Chapter VII, Curtis is approached to swap coins with officers from around the world during Police Week every year. He explains that officers from Texas and the Bobbies from England are really into it. He started collecting them when his son was born, putting them into cars of a train set he had. His son is 16.
“All the cars are now filled with challenge coins,” Curtis reports.
In challenge coin collecting, you never forget your first. Spadea acquired one of his first from Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno. He was at Giants Stadium for First Responders Day after Hurricane Sandy when Odierno was handing out coins in the shape of the Pentagon. Spadea received one and took a picture with the general.
The woman Spadea was dating at the time combined that picture with the coin and had them crafted into a shadow box to gift to him. “That got me going a little bit more,” he said. Not only did he become a more avid collector, Spadea also married her, his beloved Kimberly.
When Spadea started riding the Unity Tour several years ago, he acquired more challenge coins. Then, he started going online and joining Facebook groups, including the NYPD Challenge Coin Club. Club members will text when they are going to be in certain location to see if anybody wants to meet up and trade or exchange coins.
He says that more and more coins are being produced to commemorate a special event or an officer who passes away. So it’s hard not to get caught up in it. Spadea has even pursued coins with Disney characters on them for his two daughters.
“I couldn’t even tell you how many I have. A lot, but nowhere near some people,” Spadea shares. “I have a shelf of about 100 coins that is jam packed. Another one has 50 or so. And I have a toolbox case filled with other coins.”
Challenge coins continue to become more elaborate. Some have been made to be cigar cutters or cigar stands. Some have attachments that fold out like a Swiss Army knife.
More and more are being used for fundraisers. Local 183 issued the coin to remember Oliveira in January 2012 and to raise money to build a tribute to him. On May 21, 2014, a bronze statue of Detective Oliveira was unveiled at Veterans Memorial Park in Newark, two and a half years after Oliveira was killed.
Designing, making and exchanging coins for worthy causes has also prompted increased interest.
“When a coin goes into a collection or goes to raising money for somebody in need, I get pride out of that because it went to a meaningful place,” DelGuidice discloses. “You can get a smile out of them or use one to open a beer and take some time for yourself to relax. But when you can reach thousands of people with one, that has some meaning behind it.”
Second story time:
Dudley and Spadea have produced coins for the Middlesex-Somerset County Conference, including one in the shape of New Jersey. “Perth Amboy or Sandy Hook could actually open your beer,” Dudley quips.
As a fundraiser, they sold some at the 2018 PBA Convention in Boca Raton. That’s where they got the idea for the Mallory coin. Mallory’s mother, Diane Grossman spoke at the convention along with Bill Lavin, the former FMBA president who now runs the Where Angels Play foundation that builds playgrounds around the world. Lavin announced building a playground for Mallory, and PBA President Pat Colligan confirmed the union would be funding the project.
“Vito said to me, ‘I have an idea,’” Dudley recalls. “I said, ‘Don’t tell me. We’re creating a coin for Mallory.’ He started drawing designs right there at the meeting.”
The coin was out in time to gift the first ones to the Grossmans for the holidays. Fundraising began shortly after and enough coins were sold to contribute $15,000 toward the playground that was constructed in June and dedicated on the second anniversary of Mallory’s passing. (See story on page 43.)
Third story time:
Spadea issued a challenge coin as fundraiser for the Unity Tour when he started riding. Three years ago, he was talking to a teacher at Sommerville High School, who suggested getting students from a graphic design class to help with his coin. He talked to the principal and connected with the class.
Spadea went in a presented some history of challenge coins, talked about the Unity Tour and challenged the students to come up with a design for his coin.
“They had free range to do whatever they want,” Spadea details. “I wanted them to use their imagination.”
So many innovative ideas came in that first year that he incorporated three designs the kids had conceived into the front and back of the coin. This past year, he used five ideas that came in.
Spadea has sold these coins at the PBA Mini Convention in Atlantic City, where he shows pictures of the kids who have designed them. A local newspaper in Sommerville has published articles about the students designing the coins. The past two years, he has made t-shirts with the coins on them to give to all the kids, and he presents the class with a plaque commemorating its participation.
Consequently, the challenge of challenge coins continues to spread. The collection at PBA headquarters that started with the first PBA coin already has grown to include from more than a dozen from out-of-state departments. Some of these have been gathered when the Special Services trailer travels to provide support at funerals for officers lost in the line of duty.
There are four coins representing the Unity Tour. There are three remembering 9/11. There is one from a presidential inauguration, the Department of Justice and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial groundbreaking. PSE&G, the New Jersey Devils and Flemington Car & Truck County have given coins. Another one honors Fair Lawn Local 67 State Delegate Mary Ann Collura, who was killed in the line of duty in 2003.
Every coin in the display case tells a story. Every one that comes in will do the same. PBA members can look forward to sharing these stories.