Detail of DEA "Dangerous Drugs Intelligence Unit" patch. Photo courtesy of Nathan Zubke.

The skeleton swoops into the foreground wearing a tuxedo, top hat and pink-framed glasses. Behind him, a rainbow sky fades into a field of twinkling stars. He holds a syringe in one hand, sending a celebratory squirt of its contents into the air.

It looks like the type of scene you might see on a college dorm room poster celebrating drugs and the counterculture. But in fact, it's an embroidered uniform patch made for members of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Dangerous Drugs Intelligence Unit, a group that monitors major drug trafficking organizations. And it's just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of colorful and sometimes bizarre patches manufactured for various DEA divisions and task forces over the years.

Patches aren't unique to the DEA -- there are program and mission patches associated with many federal agencies and programs. One expert estimates there are 20,000 in existence today, some of which are historic relics and others in use. The most famous may be the patches made for NASA's shuttle missions. But in the universe of federal patches, the DEA's stand out for their outlandishness, as well as for showing a lighter, even flamboyant side of an agency that often presents itself as straight-laced and straight-edged.


DEA Ecstasy and Club Drugs patch. Photo courtesy of Nathan Zubke.

On one patch, from the DEA's Cocaine Intelligence Unit, the Grim Reaper sits on a bomb and does cocaine. On a patch made for the DEA's International Conference on Ecstasy and Club Drugs, he goes to a rave holding glow-sticks and a pacifier. Other patches feature dragons, unicorns, camels and bald eagles swooping down on marijuana plants, talons outstretched.

"In the '70s, everyone looked like drug dealers"

Federal agencies began adopting patches in the 1970s, according to Raymond Sherrard, a retired special agent with the IRS's Criminal Investigation division. Sherrard is the author of "The Encyclopedia of Federal Law Enforcement Patches," generally considered to be the bible of the federal patch collecting community. It contains thousands of color photos of federal agency patches and was compiled by Sherrard with the assistance of hundreds of collectors, law enforcement officers and organizations.

In the 1970s, Sherrard says, different federal law enforcement agencies began to team up to tackle big cases. In his own IRS division, which investigated drug traffickers and money launderers, "we had probably dozens of people from different agencies, most of whom had never seen each other before," he told me. When raiding suspected drug operations, the agents needed a quick visual way to identify one another. "In the '70s, everyone looked like drug dealers," he said, commenting on the style of an era distinguished by long hair, mustaches and flamboyant fashions.


DEA HEAT patch. Photo courtesy of Aaron Malin.

So the offices started making custom "raid jackets" with the seals of the respective agencies on them. "As time went on, there were more and more task forces created," Sherrard said. "Pretty soon every federal agency had all these patches."

The patches soon began to evolve beyond their original purpose. These patches are often not produced in an official capacity, or with the knowledge or approval of an agency's higher-ups. In his book, Sherrard writes that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of "commemorative, anniversary, special unit, 'giveaway' and local team patches, many of which are unknown or unapproved by headquarters."

Many of the DEA patches likely fall into this category. A DEA spokesman, who declined to be quoted by name in discussing the issue in an interview, said the patches are typically designed and paid for by the agents themselves. "They reflect an esprit de corps, used as a memento, or a token of gratitude to other officers" who help with major missions, he said. The agency itself only commissions and pays for official DEA seals and badges.


DEA Operation Green Air patch. Photo courtesy of Aaron Malin.

Some patches celebrate the completion of a major initiative, such as the patch for Operation Green Air, a partnership between the DEA and FedEx to bust a major marijuana smuggling operation in 2000. Others are given to cooperating local agencies as tokens of appreciation. "Most are never worn," Sherrard writes, "but are used in displays or sewn onto a baseball cap, or simply kept in binders. Some are very collectible."

"The whole thing about collecting is the seeking out."

DEA Heroin Intelligence Unit patch. Photo courtesy of Nathan Zubke.

Fred Repp Jr. is an active duty officer with the Bureau of Prisons in New Jersey. He runs Fred's Patch Corner, a site for buying, selling and trading patches online. He's particularly interested in the narcotics patches, especially ones that come from task forces overseas.

"DEA agents are in Afghanistan right now, working with local police to destroy poppy fields," he told me. "Those patches are being produced in such low numbers by the teams, you might have 12 guys," which means 12 patches, maybe a couple of spares. On such overseas assignments, Repp said, patches are usually manufactured on-site by locals. Patches produced in such small quantities are hard to come by.


DEA Kabul Country Office Counter-Narcotics patch. Photo courtesy of Fred Repp.

"The whole thing about collecting is the seeking out," Repp said. "A lot of guys have a story about how they came across something for their collection."

There are as many different types of patch collectors as there are patches. Some, like Repp, are interested in patches from a particular agency or task force. Others only collect patches shaped like states, or that contain representations of birds.


Marijuana eradication team patch. Photo courtesy of Fred Repp.

There's a brisk trade in DEA patches on eBay, and on the sites of individual collectors like Repp. Sherrard, the author, estimates that there are about 20,000 different federal law enforcement patch designs, some more sought-after than others. He's known some of these to sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, although most sell for $5 to $10.

Sherrard says patches from FBI hostage rescue teams are among the most sought-after, because only a few are ever made. Patches from the CIA and NSA are also difficult to come by, because teams in these agencies are highly protective of them and don't typically give them to people outside the organization.

"Most of the collectors are cops," Sherrard said. "They're either active or retired." But some people collect the patches for other reasons.

"A reflection of the mentality of law enforcement"

Buchanan County, Missouri, Drug Strike Force patch. Photo courtesy of Aaron Malin.

Larry Kirk, a police chief in Old Monroe, Mo., has closely followed the patch trend. He was initially interested in the special unit patches. "I was interested in the culture behind them -- it's kind of a neat story," he said. But in the past 10 years or so, he's noticed a change in the iconography used on many law enforcement patches, even at the local level.


Dallas Police Narcotics patch. Photo courtesy of Fred Repp.

Many have "become reminiscent of military unit patches," he said. "A lot of them are very aggressive, some of them have skulls, rattlesnakes, vipers. ... It's another sign of that warrior soldier mindset now that's throughout law enforcement." As law enforcement agencies have increasingly adopted military weapons and tactics, the patches suggest that they seem to be embracing military iconography as well.

Asked about this pattern, the DEA spokesman said that on some patches, "you'll see the specter of death because drug abuse is dangerous. It reflects the dangers of drug abuse and the violence associated with drug trafficking."


DEA Asset Forfeiture Program patch. Photo courtesy of Fred Repp.

Other patches celebrate controversial practices and programs. The DEA's asset forfeiture program, for instance, has allowed law enforcement agencies to seize millions of dollars in cash and property from citizens without charging them with crimes. The practice has come under criticism from lawmakers in both parties and was recently sharply curtailed by the Justice DepartmentThe program's patch contains the slogan, "You make it, we'll take it."


Dea Technical Operations Patch. Photo courtesy of Aaron Malin.

Surveillance themes also show up in a lot of narcotics patches. In the DEA Technical Operations patch, above, a scorpion with a radio dish for a tail listens in on signals from a nearby cellphone tower under an arc of lightning bolts. This type of imagery may not play well with members of the public who are concerned about the federal government monitoring their communications.

Some law enforcement agencies are "painting the picture that this is some type of war, on crime, or gangs, or drugs," Kirk said. "It's a reflection of these units taking on paramilitary ideas. It's definitely a change in the culture that started taking place in the mid-'90s until now."

"Reminders of the absurdity we are up against"

For some, the patches have come to represent the excesses of the drug war.

Aaron Malin is the director of research for Show-Me Cannabis, an organization working to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Missouri and a critic of Missouri's drug task forces.  "When I first saw some of these patches, I didn't think they could be real," he said in an interview. "But after spending the last year and a half investigating the horrific ways in which the drug war is carried out, they don't seem inconsistent with the mindsets of the officers who wear them." (For many years, Missouri led the nation in methamphetamine busts as numerous state's drug tasks forces sought to address abuse of the drug.)


DEA Cocaine Intelligence Unit patch. Photo courtesy of Nathan Zubke.

One patch for a DEA Maryland Metro Area Task Force depicts a bloody skull impaled on a sword against a background of the Maryland flag. The skull holds a set of scales between its teeth.


Photo courtesy of Raymond Sherrard

A patch from DEA's "First Virginia Cavalry,"  which operated out of Roanoke, Va. in the late '80s and early '90s, shows a skull wearing a cowboy hat featuring crossed hypodermic needles against a Confederate flag background.


Photo courtesy of Raymond Sherrard

Sherrard notes that nowadays the DEA "is a much more politically correct agency than in the past" and that the patches are used less frequently. But Malin says the extreme imagery "represents a manifestation of the most absurd levels of the drug war. I more or less collect them as reminders of the absurdity we are up against."

Not for public consumption

The other important point to consider is that many patches are essentially private documents, made by law enforcement officers for law enforcement officers. "They're made as collectibles," Sherrard says. They're for internal morale-boosting and team-building. Officers from different agencies trade them with one another, "like a business card in some ways," Sherrard says.

When we talk about large federal agencies like the DEA, it's easy to forget that every monolithic bureaucracy is composed, essentially, of individuals.

It's one thing to dismiss the asset forfeiture program as terrible policy, for instance. But it's another to remember that the individual agents who carry out that policy are, in many ways, just regular people doing a job they've been assigned. Field agents don't write policy -- Congress does. Why wouldn't we expect the people who carry out that policy to take pride in their work, and to wear that pride on their sleeve?