What Was That Badge Herschel Walker Flashed in His Debate?

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate in Georgia’s pivotal Senate race, drew some head scratches — and a debate moderator’s rebuke — when he brandished an honorary sheriff’s badge Friday while debating his Democratic opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock.

In a moment that ricocheted online, Walker, a football legend endorsed by former President Donald Trump, was responding to Warnock’s accusations that he had misrepresented himself as a law enforcement officer and had previously threatened to commit acts of violence.

But Walker’s flaunting of the honorary badge, a recognition not unusual for celebrities to receive, brought new scrutiny to his credentials and the loosely defined relationships that can emerge between law enforcement agencies and famous people.

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The moment unfolded after Warnock made claims about Walker’s professional history, saying that Walker “has a problem with the truth.”

“One thing I have not done — I’ve never pretended to be a police officer, and I’ve never threatened a shootout with police,” Warnock said, referencing controversies in Walker’s past. At which point, Walker flashed the badge in response, saying he had “worked with many police officers.”

The badge was given to him in recognition of community service work he had done with the Cobb County sheriff’s department, according to his campaign spokesperson, Will Kiley. Walker also has an honorary badge from the sheriff’s department in Johnson County in East Georgia, which includes his hometown, Wrightsville. Representatives for the sheriff’s departments in both counties were unavailable for comment.

One of the debate moderators, WSAV anchor Tina Tyus-Shaw, admonished Walker after he brandished the badge and asked him to put it away. She said that he was “well aware” of the debate’s rules against using props onstage.

“It’s not a prop,” Walker countered. “This is real.” However, the badge he presented on the debate stage was not an authentic badge that trained sheriffs carry, but an honorary badge often given to celebrities in sports or entertainment. (It seems likely that Walker and the moderator attached different meanings to the idea of ​​a prop. She was apparently saying that items used for demonstrations were not allowed; she was not referring to the validity of the badge.)

It is not uncommon for athletes to be recognized by law enforcement. In 2021, Cobb County named Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins a special deputy.

When Wilkins was sworn in, a sheriff’s spokesperson noted to The Cobb County Courier that Wilkins did not have the same authority as a regular deputy sheriff to carry a weapon and arrest people. She characterized his role as being a liaison and partner.

In 2021, the sheriff’s office in Henry County, Georgia, which is about 30 miles southeast of Atlanta, gave a member of the NBA Hall of Fame, Shaquille O’Neal, the title of director for community relations.

Neil Warren, who was the Cobb County sheriff when he named Walker an honorary deputy sheriff, endorsed his Senate bid in July.

In a statement at the time, Warren said that Walker “partnered with the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office for over 15 years” and “led trainings on leadership, advocated for mental health, encouraged countless officers, and was always there to lend a hand whenever we needed him.”

But many others express significant skepticism about the kind of honorary recognition granted by law enforcement.

“Georgia sheriffs were seriously handing out those badges like candy in a candy dish,” J. Tom Morgan, a former district attorney in DeKalb County, Georgia, who was elected as a Democrat, said in an interview Saturday. “That badge gives you no law enforcement authority. He doesn’t have the power to write a traffic ticket.”

Morgan, who is now a professor at Western Carolina University, said the badges became so widely abused that the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association curtailed the practice of giving them out.

“What would happen is, somebody would get stopped for speeding, and they would whip out one of those badges,” he said. “And there were people charged with impersonating a police officer.”

J. Terry Norris, the executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said in an email Saturday that honorary credentials are not regulated by state law and offered at the pleasure of law enforcement officials.

“There is no arrest authority associated with honorary credentials,” Norris said.

Walker has exaggerated his work in law enforcement before. In 2019, he told soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state that he was an FBI agent, which was false. He has also repeatedly said in campaign stump speeches that he worked as a member of law enforcement, but he did not.

In Georgia, the role of sheriff is an elected partisan office, and there can be rewards for both the donors and recipients of honorary badges.

According to the National Sheriffs’ Association, there are no formal guidelines stipulating the use and appearance of honorary badges — and what distinguishes them from real ones.

“It should be understood that an honorary badge is for the trophy case,” Pat Royal, a spokesperson for the National Sheriffs’ Association, said in an email Saturday. Royal specified that he was referring to honorary badges in general, not Walker’s.

Walker’s performance during the debate yielded a flurry of memes and widespread derision online.

“In fairness to Herschel Walker,” George Takei, an actor known for his role on “Star Trek,” tweeted Friday night, “I sometimes pull out my Star Fleet badge to get past security at Star Trek conferences.”

Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator, defended Walker.

“He was made an honorary deputy sheriff in Cobb County, Georgia, and spent 15 years helping that department and discussing with deputies how to handle mental health situations,” Erickson said Friday night on Twitter. “But I know facts don’t matter on Twitter.”

The image of Walker waving his badge during the debate called to mind another celebrity with a penchant for badges: Elvis Presley. During a meeting in 1970 with President Richard Nixon, Presley famously asked for a federal narcotics agency badge. Presley’s widow, Priscilla Presley, discussed the badge’s allure in her memoir, “Elvis and Me.”

“The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him,” Presley wrote.

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